Join Tricycle on November 18 for Secular Buddhism Today: A Conversation with Winton Higgins and James Shaheen, where Higgins will discuss themes from his new book Revamp: Writings on Secular Buddhism. Tickets are now available.  


If you watch television documentaries or visit airport bookshops, you’ll have noticed that the “view-from-nowhere” brigade is still hard at work debating their opposing truth-claims. The “view-from-nowhere” reduces religions, spiritualities, philosophies, and sciences down to their propositions–their truth-claims–and argues the toss over whose story is the “right” one, that is, has the most defensible truth-claims. In doing so, they’re missing the point: all these schools of thought are human artifacts designed to serve human needs and interests, just as the Buddha’s discourses patently did. The real issues in the debate should be: whose and what needs and interests are being served, and how effectively? So let’s follow the Buddha’s advice and not get sidetracked into metaphysical claims and arguments. 

Going by what we now know about the history and variety of religions and spiritualities–all those social practices–they’ve served a variety of practical purposes. These purposes include bolstering group cohesion; providing community-building moral codes and rituals; staging ceremonies for seasonal and personal transitions and life events; holding communal memory; and serving as a platform for aesthetic practices, a language for existential solace and reflection, and working hypotheses to satisfy humanity’s relentless curiosity.

Religions are thus no different from other human innovations, like plows and buildings. Even religious ritual fits the mold. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once noted, humans are “ceremonial animals,” and this trait seems to constitute an evolutionary factor. Rituals help us to cohere in our communities. 

The ability of religious social practices to serve their purposes does not depend on their myths being literally “true,” or even being believed. In the light of this usefulness, secularists might respect religion, even practice it in some sense, even though these days there are also non-religious ways of meeting these needs. 

So what is Buddhist mindfulness-based meditation for, and what modus operandi does it propose to serve its purpose? Meditation keeps us focused on the fine grain of our experience, not least our bodily experience, and in this way leads us to “fully know” and embrace what it means to be a vulnerable, mortal but aware being. What it means to be-in-the-world in this guise, in this way. To come to terms with our actual condition, instead of fleeing into fantasies of another set of preconditions than the ones we actually confront. That is, to ground ourselves in our real lives without “craving.” This is the first of the Buddha’s four great tasks. 

We can find the modus operandi for meditation readily enough in the Satipatthana sutta, among many other places in the Pali canon. Essentially it’s about opening up the totality of our experience as it unfolds–in all its freshness and complexity–to awareness (sati); and over time coming to understand it (sati-sampajanna). It’s not about being drilled to generate already-prefigured experiences while rejecting those that don’t fit the template–which is the inherited agenda of formulaic meditation techniques. 

Among other things, then, secular Buddhism aims to reinstate meditation to its earliest role as a major vehicle for tackling the four great tasks. To do so it promotes non-formulaic, non-technical insight meditation, in which one invites the senses and the mind to disclose their entire contents in all their layered complexity, so we come to see the whole picture, and gradually discern the patterns in our experience, in our individual way of being-in-the-world. We need an approach to meditation appropriate to our actual way of life, not one appropriate to the way of life of institutionalized male renunciants. 

To meditate effectively, all we need to put forward is our effort in following our immediate experience, and our honesty in acknowledging it. It makes no sense in this meditative environment to congratulate ourselves on being a “good” meditator who can follow the instructions, or to despair and declare ourselves “unable to meditate” because we don’t experience what the textbooks prescribe. So many people quickly get a sense of lostness, inadequacy, and failure when introduced to formulaic meditation that’s touted as “the one true way.” 

The only real failure to note here is the failure to live like institutionalized celibates! And we’re certainly not “good meditators” by dint of often finding ourselves in blissful states, nor bad ones for sometimes seeing into the abyss when we’re meditating. All lives contain tragic elements, and we have to receive them in our sits as we would any other experience. 

We’re all responsible for nurturing our own meditation practice, and the major issue we face is whether our approach is fit for purpose. The only true indications of meditative effectiveness are often subtle, off-the-cushion ones. Am I gradually strengthening positive qualities, such as friendliness (including to myself), empathy, generosity, clarity, self-reflectiveness, and equanimity? And am I seeing more clearly–and overcoming–my reactivity, immaturity, and narcissism? 

*** 

Already in the Buddha’s own lifetime, some of his followers fetishized his teaching, his dharma, seeing it as a supreme value in itself, as the Holy Grail (we might say in our culture), instead of just as a means to an end. He tackled this problem in a teaching in which he compared the dharma to a raft that someone might throw together, out of any materials that just happened to be lying around, in order to get across a body of water. Having arrived safely to the other shore, what should the traveler do with the raft–leave it on the shore, or carry it overland on her/his head as something of great value? The ever-pragmatic Buddha strongly recommended leaving the raft on the shore. It has already served its purpose, and that’s its only value. 

Stephen Batchelor suggests that secular Buddhists take this teaching to heart. We should throw together a raft out of what we have to hand in our own time and culture. The question then is not whether this is “really Buddhism”; the only sensible question would be: Does it float?

Adapted from Revamp: Writings on Secular Buddhism by Winton Higgins, The Tuwhiri Project, April 2021

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