A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky?

An absolutely fascinating public debate took place recently between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt regarding the evolving nature of religion and religious truth in our time, and the debate contains many stimulating insights into the nature of modern Buddhism and the attempts of Buddhism to entrench itself in the West. The debate had great meaning and especial poignancy for me in the light of the traumatic experiences I and some of my dharma colleagues have been through recently, but it also gave me lots of clues about how to develop my dharma practice in the future and confirms me in my growing conviction that dharma practice has to be protected from the tendency of religious organisations, even Buddhist ones, to periodically become fossilised and over-rigid in their attempts to maintain doctrinal purity and hierarchical authority, destroying the creative tension of debate, even dissent, that is an essential part of keeping any tradition fresh, alive and dynamic. Better still, ways of practising dharma outside of any dependence or over-reliance upon an organisational or institutional structure may need to be developed and/or encouraged.

To give a flavour of the debate, here is some of what Stephen Batchelor said:

I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part. 

Later on Batchelor says:

I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh.

And to really put the cat amongst the pigeons, this question was put to Stephen Batchelor: “Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.”

To which Stephen Batchelor replied:

Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.

Now that makes you think, doesn’t it? But I do recommend reading  the transcript of the whole debate and Stephen Batchelor’s statement distributed before the debate itself. I promise you, it’s compelling stuff!



Sayings of the Mad Yogi – 4

For the next teaching in a fortnight, I have chosen the subject Non-existent.

For those who want to, I have created a web-page they can visit.

If they go there, they will find I haven’t written anything.

Stories of The Mad Yogi – 4

A lottery ticket blew into my flowerpot. Not a crisp packet, or a newspaper. Two lines of numbers for Wednesday’s draw.

“Do not be fooled by the universe!” I told my students. “It will only let you down! A sign from the Universe that I should use the wealth wisely? No, a sign of sunyata, the worthless, the clothing of samsara. Ignore it and the universe will be yours.”

Confident was I in my practise of Sunyata.

Anyway, there was was only one right number in both lines.

The 4th Door

The Fourth Door to Liberation is non-production (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Essence of Vajrayana). This door is not quoted in earlier texts. The 4th Door is that nothing has been produced, is produced, or ever will be produced. Produced here means arising from cause or produced from cause. Thus this Door could be called the cause-less.

Note, this does not refer to karma, i.e. something is produced or arises from karma. If things do not arise from karma, or from ordinary cause, then humans can say nothing about appearance other than it appears. And this is a dilemma for philosophers. Some advanced meditators, and Prasangika philosophers for example, say that things are just appearance, that is they are not related to cause, but only to conditions, or to nothing other than the mind.

How to practise this path of cause-less-ness? First we must overcome our normal, rational need for explanation – “This arose from that, or because of that!” Such logical statements are themselves descriptions of samsara. A person abandoning that need for explanation has overcome the first layer, gross samsara.

Should you choose to practise in this way expect to find your normal conversation no longer functioning. This is a result of deliberately seeking liberation. It is a conscious choice. Do I wish to practise liberation or remain functioning in samsara?

Next we must examine how the world interacts with me. First we can say, “The world arises from karma. My karma is to experience the world and the karma of people is to interact with me.” We have now changed our model of the world to a karmic one rather than to one based on ordinary explanation.  When this is firm you have overcome a subtle layer of samsara.

Finally we must abandon the opponent itself – ourselves. “If the world arises from its own causes and I experience my own causes, what remains? – I do. Only myself, the arising of my own awareness remains. This is me, definitive self.” When I realise that this has no cause other than myself, I am free.

Nothing to Pursue

Renunciation is the essential preliminary to emptiness! The foothills before the snow peaks. Before engaging in any meditation on emptiness the practitioner must have developed very subtle renunciation, the realisation that wherever you look you will find nothing to pursue.

Sunya – The Worthless

Sunya, according to Edward Conze, means worthless as in ‘this tissue has no value to me, it is worthless’.

To quote Bodhidharma “all things are empty, and there is nothing desirable or to be sought after”, and to quote Edward Conze, “Things are empty in the sense that they are unsubstantial and unsatisfactory”.

This ‘unsatisfactoryness’ I associate with duhkha or contaminated suffering in Buddha’s original teaching.  This is the second of three signs or four seals within Buddhism that mark a person as being a buddhist. This sign states that all phenomena or dharma are unsatisfactory or marked with suffering. ‘Unsubstantial’ I interpret as to be ‘unable to fulfil desire’, and relate it to a difficult concept in emptiness – the phrase held by all schools that phenomena are not self-supporting or substantially existent. I will look at all these words over the next few posts.

Bodhidharma then is saying not that things are void like space, but empty of meaning or worth.  That there is nothing in samsara, or life as we know it, that is worth pursuing; it cannot fulfill your desires which are the desires for happiness or satisfaction. This is very important and explains the whole of Buddha’s position.

The Three Doors To Liberation

I was reading Edward Conze’s Buddhist Thought in India Page 59 onwards and came to this conclusion. First I understand both Signlessness (animitta) and Wishlessness (apranihita), the second and third doors of liberation; and I will write or teach on these in the future.  Indeed, I realised Signlessness was my very own path. So what about Sunyata, the first of the doors to liberation?  Sunyata, emptiness or voidness, has always given me a problem since it seems to lead to nothingness. Yet, it is the principle, or only, method in the tradition in which I have studied and practised – The New Kadampa or Gelug Tradition. So what is Sunyata? Over the next few posts I will examine and explain these different doors to Liberation and especially where I think Sunyata comes from

– Sonam