What if we understood the 4 Noble Truths to be tasks rather than truths? What if we were no longer burdened by the quest for truth regarding metaphysical claims/beliefs? In this episode, I will discuss what Stephen Batchelor calls Buddhism 2.0. We’re not concerned with the question “Is it true?” we’re wondering, “Does it work?”. In this episode, I will discuss Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor. This interview can be watched on the Secular Buddhism Facebook page or on YouTube.
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Thank you to Ramsey Margolis at http://secularbuddhism.org.nz/ for transcribing this interview!
Books mentioned in this episode:
After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age
Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World
Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil
Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World
Noah Rasheta: Okay, I am live with Stephen Batchelor, author of many books. Two of his most recent are After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism, and we’ll be discussing this second book a little in this interview, but I want to give Stephen a quick introduction. It’s always interesting to have the opportunity to speak with someone who’s been so influential in my own journey. It seems to be quite an honor, so I’m very grateful to you, Stephen, for joining me today, for taking time to have a discussion on secular Buddhism. By way of introduction, Stephen was at one time a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and after that you studied for some time as a Zen Buddhist monk, is that right?
Stephen Batchelor: Yes.
Noah: Then you left monastic life and taught Buddhism from a much more secular standpoint. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it. Is there anything you would want to add, Stephen?
Stephen: No, that’s pretty good. The only thing I might add is that since I left the monastic communities, my interest has really gone to what I call ‘early Buddhism’, to try to sort of get back to what the Buddha was doing before it became Buddhism. For me, that’s closely tied into what I understand as secular Buddhism. They’re very, very closely connected, these two interests.
Noah: Great. I think that’s a really fascinating process, to try to help us get back to understanding what was taking place with these really powerful teachings. I think with most traditions, especially religious traditions, at one point what were the teachings evolve into teachings about the teachings. I feel like Buddhism is no exception to that, and sometimes it’s in the teachings of the teachings that we can get hung up on things that impede us from benefiting from the original teachings.
Just quickly with my journey, I transitioned out of an orthodox form of Christianity, and for a while was not interested in any form of religion, but you see quotes online and you hear all these little snippets of wisdom attributed to the Buddha, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Dalai Lama, and I thought, ‘Man, there’s something to this Buddhism stuff, I want to learn more about it,’ all the while with a hint of reservation that I don’t want to be entangled in any kind of dogmatic or metaphysical, or supernatural beliefs, and that’s when I come across your book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. It was such a fascinating presentation of the teachings, very simple. It’s like, ‘These are the teachings that have no beliefs attached to them’. It was extremely influential for me, enough to decide, ‘Okay, this is a philosophy I want to study and learn and understand,’ and then, with time, that has evolved into teaching and having a podcast.
What I’m finding I think is that we’ve kind of got two angles, right? From the Buddhist side, there are people who are wanting a more secular approach, but from the secular side, people who are disaffected from religion are looking for some form of spirituality that isn’t, I guess, with quotes there with ‘spirituality’, but some form of path that feels satisfying and fulfilling, but doesn’t feel religious, and they’re encountering Buddhism as a philosophy, and this movement is just taking off. You’re at the forefront of this, and you’ve been extremely influential. That’s part of why I wanted to spend time and talk to you a little bit about it, because it’s really exciting. It’s a really exciting time and I thought it would be really fun to pick your brain. Again, thank you.
Stephen: Thank you. I think you summarised that extremely well. That’s exactly how I feel. I think we’re at the intersection of two powerful cultural streams: people who are disaffected with religion on the one hand; and people who are disaffected with secularism on the other. And Buddhism, of course, it famously thinks of itself as a middle way. Maybe it’s the way that middle way that’s playing out in our time in the world today. If we can contribute to this and sort of address concerns that are uppermost in the minds of these two bodies of people, then I think we may do a great service, and I’m very honoured to be part of it.
Noah: Great. With that in mind, let’s jump into a couple of the topics that I want to discuss, because something that you mentioned in your most recent book, in Secular Buddhism … I guess before we jump into that real quick, I do want to kind of highlight. From my understanding, Buddhism Without Beliefs does a really good job of being a foundational text to understand Buddhist concepts. With the understanding of Buddhist concepts, then comes, for me, reading it backwards was Buddhism Without Beliefs, then I wanted to know your story. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was kind of like your biography, or your transition, or your story. I know you have a lot more than these four books, but After Buddhism kind of presents what’s next, what do we do with this now, which I enjoyed and I know a lot of podcast listeners have enjoyed. I always recommend Buddhism Without Beliefs as the foundational text to podcast listeners or people who want to understand secular Buddhism.
But then comes your most recent book, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World and something I really enjoyed from this process was seeing, and you discussed this in the book, the evolution of your understanding of some of these key concepts, specifically the transition of the Four Noble Truths from being truths to being tasks. Talk to me a little bit about the process of that understanding and that transition, because I think it’s a powerful shift in perspective to see it that way.
Stephen: Yeah. Again, I think you summarised that very well. As the author of books, it’s very difficult to have a perspective in which I can look at them from the outside, as it were, and I see my books really as, in a way, the way in which I share my journey with others. I see each book as a kind of a way station on a journey that is far from over, and it does clearly describe a trajectory. And you’re quite right, probably the key idea in all of my work over the last 40 years has been in the rethinking of the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths is quite self-evidently the foundational teaching of what we think of as traditional Buddhism. There’s no Buddhist school that would somehow sideline this. It’s clearly the paradigm or the template out of which traditional Buddhism has been based and developed.
I first started having questions about this when I was still a Tibetan Buddhist monk. This would’ve been thirty odd years ago, and I remember we were studying a very obscure Tibetan text on philosophy. There I came across this idea of these four tasks. They didn’t describe them as tasks as such, but it made it very clear that the person who realises these four truths has effectively done four things: they have embraced or fully understood dukkha or suffering; they let go of certain reactive patterns or graspings; they experience the stopping of those patterns; and they have cultivated and developed a way of life in the world.
That was in a Tibetan text; it was not that the Tibetans were actually teaching that as their main thing, but there it was. For some reason, that really jumped off the page for me. I had not heard this before. I’d never heard it again in the Tibetan tradition or other traditions, really, and yet it’s there and, as I found out later, it’s right at the conclusion of the Buddha’s first discourse, or what’s considered to be the Buddha’s first discourse. Clearly, this idea that the four ‘truths’ are to be enacted in a way that actually has a transformative effect on one’s life was there from the very outset. I’ve always found it very strange that something that is presented as the conclusion of the Buddha’s first discourse is never further developed in any of the orthodox traditions. You’ll find little, if anything, on these four tasks, as I now call them.
Over time, I became more and more dubious about some of the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, and I soon began to realise that it wasn’t just karma and rebirth that were metaphysical doctrines, but actually the Four Noble Truths were metaphysical doctrines. To claim that life is suffering is a metaphysical claim. You’re making a generalised statement about the nature of existence, wherever it might occur in the universe, and it is dukkha. The origin of dukkhaor suffering is craving. It’s a metaphysical claim. It’s no different really from saying that God created heaven and earth. It’s not something you can prove. It’s not something you can disprove. It stands outside the reach of reason.
So when I started thinking that the Four Noble Truths were actually metaphysics, that again brought me back to another way where the Buddha had presented these truths not in fact as things to believe, as metaphysical doctrines, but actually as indicators of how to live. In other words, I feel, quite passionately actually, that the dharma started out as a pragmatic, therapeutic way of life primarily concerned with ethics, ethics in the widest sense of how do we become the kind of people we aspire to be? How do we lead a good life? How do we flourish as human persons and human societies here on Earth? These are ethical questions, and my sense is that the Buddha was an ethicist through and through. Ethics is not just part of the path; the path is ethical in its very nature. The whole of the eightfold path is really a way of life, it’s an ethos, it’s an ethic.
The next step in this process was when I was reading the letters of a British monk called Ñāṇavīra Thera, Harold Musson, who was a monk in Sri Lanka during the 1950s. I came across his collected letters really by chance. They were on a bookshelf in a retreat centre I was teaching at, and I was completely taken with this man’s ideas. He was the one who actually coined the phrase ‘the four tasks’. He presented the Four Noble Truths as what he called the optimal task for a human person’s performance, or something like that. That really nailed that point to me in a very final way, and that became the basis for my own working out of these truths as tasks in a much more detailed way than Ñāṇavīra ever got down to doing. It provided for me a whole other template, a whole other paradigm in which we can practice the dharma, that you can’t consider to be something that’s been invented in the 20th century, and dreamed up by some later commentarial tradition. It’s actually something you find at the very root, at the very core of the dharma itself.
This secular approach to the dharma is, for me, a radical way of reforming Buddhism, much in the way that Luther and Calvin and others sought to reform Christianity. And I do think we are at a time where Buddhism, if it is to really survive as a force for good, a force for wisdom, for compassion in our world, has to rethink its fundamental ideas in a very radical way. This may be foolhardy as it is, it’s what I’m trying to do.
Noah: I love that and I love what you mentioned in your book, how as a living tradition you’re more interested in the ongoing dialogue and not arriving at a final conclusion. I think, as someone who studies and practices Buddhism, I would agree wholeheartedly that understanding the nature of things being impermanent, the nature of things continually changing, that’s the only logical way that any of this would make sense is that this would be an ongoing transformation, and an ongoing evolution that should be approached and discussed in this way. At least that’s how I view it from my perspective. I understand that, from other perspectives, this may be threatening. This may seem scary because it’s a change of how things have been, and that’s always scary. We encounter that in any school of thought, any religion, any ideology.
I want to address something that you mentioned in the book that I really like. You discussed this idea of thinking of Buddhism 1.0 as kind of the traditional Buddhism, and secular Buddhism is kind of a reboot, or Buddhism 2.0, as you call it. What stood out to me when I first heard this, the idea of software being updated; any software that we use that’s useful will be updated periodically. That’s the nature of how good software works. What stood out was the thought that, as an operating system, it’s one thing to claim ‘This is the right operating system,’ and it’s another to say, ‘This is another operating system’. That may be contingent on the hardware, right?
I like to think of the hardware as the culmination of my personality, our societal way of thinking. All of that hardware may lend itself to say, ‘Hey, this operating system may be more effective for this hardware’, but it’s not necessarily saying, ‘This operating system is better than that operating system’. I think about this all the time, because I’m in the tech world. Is a Mac better than a PC? There are so many arguments that prove this one is better than that one, but there are also arguments that prove that one is better than this one, so in a way, it’s like, ‘Well, the answer’s yes. It is better and the answer’s also no, it’s not better.’
I like applying that to this concept of secular Buddhism as an operating system. I feel like as we present secular Buddhism we’re saying, ‘Hey, here’s another way to think about it,’ but it’s not in competition to it. You addressed that specifically in your book when you mentioned that the mythical and the historical being both valid and they don’t necessarily compete.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: Talk a little bit about that. What role does the mythic play in Buddhism in general and does it play any role in this new operating system?
Stephen: The danger with a secular approach is that you might read some story about the Buddha, like for example, he grows up as a prince and he leaves the palace and he sees the sick person and the old person. It’s a beautiful, mythical story, but it’s very unlikely anything like that actually happened. The danger is that we would then say, ‘That is no longer relevant’. What we’re doing there is we’re making a category error, basically. We’re taking a myth, we’re judging it as though it were historical and because it doesn’t live up to our standards of historical truth, we’re thereby discarding it.
Traditional Buddhists have done the opposite. They’ve taken … No, no. I’m sorry. I’m getting muddled. The point is that myth works very well in its own terms and we need to be constantly reminded that it’s not history. It’s doing something else. One of the most powerful myths for me, is in one of my books that you didn’t mention called Living With the Devil. After I wrote Buddhism Without Beliefs, I was basically given a blank cheque by my publisher, who said, ‘Okay, just do what you want’. Sounds like a writer’s greatest dream come true. Actually, it’s a nightmare because you have no guidance whatsoever. You have no points of reference. You have no task to perform. You’re just told to do what you want.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what in fact I wanted to say. In the end, after a number of false starts, I stumbled into the idea of Mara, the demonic. Now, this is purely mythical material. It’s right through the early Pāli canon, the encounters of the Buddha and Mara, and of course it’s also picked up in many other traditions as well, not exclusively Buddhist obviously. The figure of Satan has a very similar role.
Now, I’ve found that using the Mara material, the idea of the demonic as a personification, as a character who interacts with another character, who embodies certain values and perspectives and so on that are in opposition to others, works in many ways more powerfully for me than analysing these things in terms of, say, Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology is, again, it’s quite an amazing thing. Buddhists came up with psychological insights long before they were thought of in the West, and we’re naturally quite attracted to that sort of aspect of Buddhism. Much of the world of mindfulness draws upon Buddhist psychology really, and that’s the language it tends to prefer. But that’s done at the cost of losing sight of the potency of mythic material.
The example of Mara I continue to use today. In fact, next month in New York there will be a performance of a chamber opera that I’ve written called ‘Mara’. I’ve spent a few years now writing a libretto which tells the story of Buddha and Mara through two acts that are sung by a soprano, a baritone and a tenor. The music is being composed by my friend Sherry Woods, and we’re going to have a performance in the Rubin Museum on October 18 and 20 in New York City, If you’re interested, tickets are now available.
That’s another example of using a secular form, opera, converting classical Buddhist material into the language of the Western musical tradition and presenting these ideas not intellectually or abstractly but through figures moving and singing and acting on stage. Again, I think you couldn’t do this by thinking of Buddhism purely psychologically or philosophically. So that, to me, is probably the best example of how we’ve been very careful not to dispense with mythology because it doesn’t meet our criteria of historical or psychological accuracy. It allows us to engage with this material through the imagination and that, for me, is, again, a very, very important part of my practice.
It’s the cultivation and the incorporation of the creative and the imaginative into my practice. In fact, in the book Secular Buddhism, the last section is all about the arts, which I feel is hopefully a way in which the secular movement within Buddhism will start to take more and more interest in finding new forms of expressing the dharma and bringing it into our lives in quite non-traditional ways.
Noah: Cool, I love that. I’d like to get your thoughts on this. From my perspective, I wouldn’t want the secular Buddhist movement that’s emerging to replace the traditional Buddhist movement, or anything else. I view it like the concept of love languages, the idea that some people express something that is so universal like love very differently. For some people, their key love language is words of affirmation. For others, it’s physical touch, and whatever their love language is, it works for them. I’ve come to understand that secular Buddhism, for me, is like another spiritual language. It’s a language that works for me. That’s why I enjoy it and I like teaching these concepts from a secular lens and practising them from a secular approach but I’ve never felt like I’m crossing the line to say, ‘This is the right way for everyone’.
I feel that it’s important to emphasise that what we’re trying to do as part of this movement is provide another language that may work for some people because the language that’s out there isn’t working for someone. This involves, at times, telling people, ‘Hey, this practice works, but you may want to check out the Tibetan tradition, or you may want to check out Zen’, because it’s not a competition of, ‘Hey, you need to be here’. Right? I’d kind of like to hear your thoughts on that, your perspective on that. I assume, from what I’ve gathered, that it’s similar for you.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s very similar, and actually this whole distinction taps right into the core shift from truths to tasks. As long as you’re invested in the language of truth, it’s very difficult to not then get into comparative judgement. If this is true, then that can’t be true. If the Tibetan Buddhist teaching of this is true, then the Zen or the Theravada version clearly can’t be true. At the root, then, of this secular approach is that it has discarded the polemic of truth and replaced it with the vision of pragmatism. In other words, what matters is that we’re not trying to persuade ourselves or others that this or that idea is true. We’re only actually interested in whether or not it works. That’s the key insight of William James and others in the pragmatic tradition.
It’s not about whether it’s true. Does it work? Does this practice, for example, of mindfulness, actually make a difference in the quality of my life? I’m not going to try and persuade people to do it because the Buddha said it and the Buddha wasn’t lying, therefore it’s true. I’m basically offering an exercise, and the question is, is this helpful? Does this work? Does this actually improve the quality of your life? If you’re really serious about that approach, then of course you will assume an extremely tolerant attitude towards all other forms, but you will acknowledge that, for certain people, perhaps this is not an approach that’s very helpful. You might even, as you suggest, direct them elsewhere. Maybe they should do their own practice or whatever. In other words, you need to adapt the dharma to suit the needs of the practitioner, rather than seeking to remodel the practitioner to somehow fit the idea you have as what constitutes the Buddhism. My experience, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was that in order for me to be able to function in good faith as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, I had to accept certain doctrinal propositions as being true, and be able to defend them in public. If I were unable to do that, I would have no business being a Tibetan Buddhist monk. And that’s one of the reasons I could not really work within that environment. There were other issues, as well, that we don’t need to go into.
The point is a secular approach is effectively a tolerant approach. This has been brought forth quite strongly in recent writings and speeches by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is also using the word secular a lot. If you’ve read his book Beyond Religion – which is a unusual title for the head of one of the world’s biggest religions – the thing he emphasises is how we live in a world today where we can no longer expect any one religion to provide the ethical foundations for how people should live in this world. We need a secular approach that recognises the diversity and the plurality of different religious traditions, and gives equal respect to them all, and yet provides a space in which tolerance is the key.
And he gets this idea from the reading of the Indian constitution, a secular constitution set up in 1948, which is explicitly secular in order to work within the highly diverse religious world of India. You’ve got Muslims, Hindus, Jains and lots of different groups, and so on. You cannot run a country like that by taking a sectarian stance in terms of your identity as a nation. So the secular vision is not just about putting religion to one side, or even rejecting religion, as it’s often understood. It’s actually about having a open and tolerant attitude that is able to accept more.
But having said all of this, I do think we also need to leave enough space to have a critical engagement with religious traditions, in my own case a critical relationship to the Buddhist traditions that have emerged historically. I don’t think we could just say, ‘Well, this works for you. That’s fine. This works for you, that’s fine.’ There’s a danger there we slip into a kind of non-critical individualism, and I do think we need somehow to find a balance between, on the one hand, tolerance and respect and on the other hand, a willingness to look clearly and critically on the basis of empirical evidence, historical research, archeology and so on, to try to get a much clearer sense of how these traditions evolved, and to be able to be quite open and frank with our concerns about where they might be maybe going off in directions that are even contradicting their own principles, or whatever it might be. So there’s a balance between criticisms and respect; they need to go hand in hand.
Noah: Yeah. Absolutely. What comes to mind is, ‘Hey, that tradition that’s working for you, it’s not working for the rest of us because you’re trying to kill us,’ or something along those lines, or not even going to that extreme but a set of beliefs that may be causing unnecessary suffering for a whole group …
Stephen: Yeah, exactly.
Noah: … like the LGBT community or something like that.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that. Okay. A couple things I want to mention just based on what we’ve talked about. From writings that talk about the Buddha’s ability to teach people where they were, to meet someone where they are and teach them what’s appropriate for them, this seems to be echoed in what we’re discussing here, what you explained about this approach. Also, the idea that we shouldn’t believe these things just because someone said them, or because they’re written somewhere. This is also a deep rooted understanding for a lot of people of what Buddhism is, and that what the Buddha was teaching was, ‘Hey, try this’. That’s why I love this transformation of ‘truths’ into tasks, because you can take them and apply them and try them. So I wanted to talk about this a little bit because you use an acronym that makes it easier for us. So the acronym is …
Noah: As any of us with kids know, Elsa teaches us the message of let it go, right? Playing off of the Disney movie.
Stephen: Oh, really? That’s in a Disney? Actually someone told me that. I didn’t know because I don’t watch children’s films. Yeah, somebody told…
Noah: Which is funny because when I first heard it, I thought, ‘I wonder if he drew that correlation on purpose to help us remember that.’ I think it’s a really funny play on the acronym. The most popular song she sings is called ‘Let it Go’.
Stephen: Is it really?
Stephen: What movie is this now? ‘Little Mermaid’?
Noah: No, no, no, it’s one of the more recent ones.
Stephen: Never mind. Someone did flag that to me, and I was very touched by it.
Noah: The movie’s called ‘Frozen’.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: The main character’s name is Elsa, and her pivotal moment is that she’s learning to let go of something that’s been binding her, holding back who she really is, and that’s her song, ‘Let it Go’.
Stephen: It’s a close interconnected world these days. And who knows, the scriptwriter might actually have borrowed the idea. I have no idea, and I don’t really mind.
Noah: Let’s walk through ELSA as an acronym and maybe apply it, so if someone’s listening to this thinking, ‘How do I apply this as a task to an ordinary instance of anguish or suffering?’ Like, I’m stuck at a red light or I just lost my job, how would we apply these as tasks to an instance of suffering?
Stephen: The example I usually give is working as a therapist. Let’s first of all start by just breaking down ELSA so that we’re all on the same page. ELSA is: E, embrace; L, let go; S, see – in some of the earlier writings it said stop – and then A, actualise or act. That is a highly condensed, secular Buddhist version of the Four Noble Truths. In other words: Embrace suffering, which means embrace the situation at hand; Let go of your instinctive reactivity to it; See the stopping of that reactivity; and then Act, respond. Either say, think, act, do something, whatever it might be.
To concretise that, imagine you’re a therapist working with a client. The knock on the door, a person appears. E, embrace. Embrace that person as unconditionally as you can. Accept that person for who they are. Read the face, what they’re saying to you through their eyes, through their expression, through their body language. Be totally open to that. L, let go of the reactions that arise in your mind. Maybe if you’re a heterosexual male and it’s a beautiful young woman, you will experience desire, you’ll experience saying, ‘Oh, she’s nice’, or whatever. Notice that, be totally with it. Don’t condemn it, but let it go. Don’t buy into it. Just see that as the natural, completely ordinary response of one organism to another. It’s okay. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reacting to it. It’s what we do with it that’s problematic.
The second step is let go of that reactive pattern. It might be a client that you really have a great deal of difficulty with on some personal level, and you experience resistance, dislike, frustration. You notice that. You embrace it. You let it go. And that allows you to come to settle into that non-reactive, mindful attention that you’re trying to sustain as this person walks into your room. See the fact that when you’re aware of these things, that seeing is actually non-reactive. You can be non-reactively aware of your reactivity. This is the essential principle behind all mindfulness therapies, basically.
And that’s not the end of the path, that’s not your nirvana, as it were. That is actually where you now seek to respond to the situation. You seek to respond to this person’s suffering, in this case the client. You seek to respond to them in a way that’s not determined by your instincts, your reactions, your likes, your dislikes. It’s responding in a way that’s not conditioned by your greed, your attachment, your fear, your hatred, your egoism, or whatever it might be. That is what then leads you to say something to maybe reach out and take their hand, whatever it is that you subsequently do.
Now, of course in reality, what I’ve just described, could be happening within a second or less; it’s very fast. The reason we do formal practice is to somehow break the process down into manageable training segments, so we’ll spend time actually cultivating attention that embraces our situation, which is largely just being mindful and aware. We’ll pay more attention to what it means to not get caught up in our reactive patterns. We’ll learn to know what that feels like, and we’ll become particularly attuned to the tastes and the feel of what it’s like to be in a nonreactive state of mind, as a foundation for them being able to respond rather than react to the person who’s actually before you or the situation that is at hand.
And as you suggested at the beginning, we can apply this to any situation in life, whether we’re stuck at a traffic jam in this trivial sense, or whether we’re facing a major life decision in a marriage or in a work situation. We can apply those principles, I feel, just as effectively in any human scenario. The difficulty is that it’s happening very fast. The world is impinging on your life. You’re under deadlines. You’ve got colleagues and friends and partners pressuring you to do this, that and the other. You don’t have the luxury to go on a two-week meditation retreat before you get back to everybody else.
We need to find a way in which we can integrate a formal practice in which we quite systematically cultivate these skills, and then the real practice, which is actually living from moment to moment, from day to day in the midst of what is often a very conflicted, and sometimes very stressful, situation. We can do all of that without believing anything about Buddhist doctrine or metaphysics. Really that plays no role at all. It’s actually kind of just a big irrelevance.
I used to make the mistake of really getting upset with people who believed in reincarnation, and making a big effort to try to show that it can’t possibly be true, and so forth. But that’s just the same problem in reverse: I’m reacting to a belief rather than being attached to it. What I’ve got to now is that rebirth, reincarnation, karma, different realms of existence, this is all completely irrelevant. It has actually no bearing whatsoever on how we actually live our lives from day to day, and so we just let it go. We don’t have to get upset about it or whatever. We just don’t need to be driven by opinions and views at all.
Noah: Yeah. I really like that word, irrelevant, because it’s not a matter of I’ve got to prove or disprove, it becomes a side note.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s a side note. It’s just off the map. It doesn’t play any role at all.
Noah: Right. Yeah, and that’s how I view it. I like to think that if I perceive that Buddhism can get in the way of Buddhism, I need to understand that secular Buddhism also gets in the way of secular Buddhism the moment I become dogmatic against dogmatism, right?
Noah: That’s why I really like what you discussed with the operating systems again, thinking of that as the analogy, keeping in mind, hey, it’s a different software.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: It works differently. It works well for me, but at the same time I recognise I haven’t tried every operating system, and I can’t. There are so many ways of trying to make sense of the universe, and this one happened to work pretty well for me, and I’m content here. I think the moment I realise that it’s not inspiring me to be a better person, or I’m not experiencing joy out of it then sure, I may say, ‘Well, let me try another software here’. But keeping that in mind allows me to extend that to someone else, saying, ‘If you’re good where you are, you’re good where you are. As long as you’re happy and you’re inspired to be a better person and you’re not harming other people in the process, sure, stick with that software.’
This has been such a treat to discuss things with you. I feel like I could spend all day chatting, I may have to come to France and visit you and we could just sit down and chat, But I do want to take a few moments to ask you some questions that podcast listeners wanted me to ask you. Is that okay?
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s go for it.
Noah: Okay, how important is meditation practice in secular Buddhism, and if so, like what types are best?
Stephen: That’s a very good question. I’ve got a sort of a both, and, answer to this one, I’m afraid. On the one hand, I would quite categorically affirm that meditation practice is pretty useful. It is kind of necessary. I think if we’re going to bind to the ELSA model, this requires that we do cultivate certain inner disciplines that allow us to be more aware of the workings of our minds. We can’t get round that. And meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is a remarkable tool for achieving this, and I feel extraordinarily vindicated in having started out practicing mindfulness about 30 years ago to now find that it’s all over the place, and the reason it’s all over the place is not because the world is becoming Buddhist. It’s because it works. It’s as simple as that. Clinical trials have shown growing evidence that if you want to live a happy, flourishing creative life, then it would help, in most cases, to be more mindful.
Now, the counterpoint to this is that we must be careful, I think, as secular Buddhists, not to over-privilege meditation, and to think of meditation as ‘the practice’. You get a lot of Buddhists who will say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go do my practice now,’ and what that usually means is they’ll go somewhere and they’ll sit cross-legged on their zafu and they’ll light a stick of incense, and they’ll meditate for 30 minutes. We have to expand the notion of practice to include every aspect of the eightfold path and, in that sense, I want to keep meditation on a level playing field with vision, with intention, with speech, with action, with work, with effort and with samadhi, with concentration.
The Buddha, in the first discourse, quite clearly presents the eightfold path as the practice. All of those aspects of the path are to be bhavanaed, to be cultivated, to be brought into being, to be practiced. The danger today is that we continue this idea that the real practices are private, subjective meditation that we do on our cushion, and we do on our retreats, and everything else in our life is kind of an optional add-on to that core practice. I think we really need to honour our whole human experience as a field of practice, in other words we think, how we speak, how we work, how we act. All of that is practice and it’s no more or less practice than cultivating meditation.
The reason I think meditation becomes so highlighted in Buddhism is because it is a part of the tradition that provides something that, in the West, we’ve lost sight of. Meditative and contemplative traditions in Christianity in particular have largely fallen into abeyance, and Buddhism is thereby very attractive because it provides something we don’t have. And so it does fill a gap and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why it’s given such priority, but the danger is that we don’t readjust, as it were, our perspective on practice. Once we do have a reasonably competent meditation discipline under our belt, we need then to do the next thing, which is to extend the notion of practice to include everything else, and to not give unnecessary privilege to meditation.
Noah: I like that. And I would also add if used as a practice to ease the grasping or the attachment we have, we need to be careful to not allow it to become the next thing we attach to.
Noah: And I think sometimes here in the West, it seems like it is used very much as a form of escapism. It’s like, ‘Well, here’s life and it’s hectic so I’m going to go hide in my little corner here and sit for a moment and get away from it all’, without realising that the whole art of the practice is not to get away from it all, it’s to sit with it all. It’s to be with things just as they are.
Stephen: That’s true. On the other hand, there are times in which retreat is kind of important. I think we often need the quiet and solitude to really take stock of what’s going on. There’s a great place for that in our world, especially as we’ve become so much more bombarded with data. We do need to create spaces, public spaces in our world where people can experience a physical quiet and solitude to support the rest of their life.
Noah: Okay, so that, what you just mentioned, addresses one of the other questions, which is the view on retreats, mindfulness retreats. I think they have a place, certainly, based on what you just said. We wouldn’t want to make the mistake of thinking, ‘No, those are obsolete. You don’t need that’, but we also don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that’s the way, that the only way you get any benefit out of all of this is to go to these things. Another question that just came in: ‘do these teachings constitute a religion?’
Stephen: This is a question that I’m frequently asked. The problem is the word religion is extremely difficult to define, and I think at the beginning of After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age in chapter one, I talk about the different ways in which we can use religion, in some senses positively, in other senses negatively. To me, I consider myself, at one level, to be a deeply religious person, but by that I don’t mean because I bought into some religious orthodoxy of Buddhism or Christianity. Rather, to be deeply religious, as I understand it, means to lead your life in a state of ultimate concern. If we take our life with the deepest possible seriousness, that we realise that we’re only on this earth for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, how do we make the most of that? How do we make each moment count? How do we give our passion and our deepest feelings to what matters most for us in the face of our death? That, to me, is the core of the religious feeling, the religious impulse.
I think the traditional religions acknowledge this, but very often what happens is that the more that one gets drawn into an orthodox religion – Buddhist or other – the potency of our ultimate concern becomes slowly eaten away, and we become more and more preoccupied with defending our beliefs, or defending our institutions, and somehow preserving a sacred teaching or organisation, or whatever it might be.
That’s where religion starts to become less desirable. It becomes very often about joining about a club, feeling superior to other people, having privileged access to the truth, all that kind of stuff. All the wars of religion, all of the disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Muslims and the Jews, and the Hindus and so on, that’s where religion really goes out the window, as far as I’m concerned.
So can we therefore somehow recover the core that unites all people who are deeply committed to the values of being human, in whatever form that might take, and be less preoccupied with the outward structures and teachings and doctrines that the particular historical religions have come up with?
So I’m not giving you a yes or no answer.
Noah: Which is very Buddhist. I like that, I really like that explanation. I’ve thought lately, it’s interesting that with Buddhism people would ‘ask are you a Buddhist?’ But with another practice, yoga for example, there’s not really a word, are you a yoga-ist? It’s just ‘do you practice it, yes or no?’ I wish we viewed Buddhism more like that. Do I practice meditation? Yes. Do I practice Buddhism? Yes. Am I Buddhist? Well, no. Do I teach Buddhism? Yes. So, that’s just an interesting thought. We’re coming up on the last couple of minutes here. I’d like to ask you, this is my question to you: How do you define nirvana? What does nirvana mean to you? The idea of enlightenment, what does it mean to you?
Stephen: For a start, for me, nirvana and enlightenment are not equivalent at all. Nirvana just means literally ‘blowing out’ or ‘stopping’, and I go back to one of the earliest phrases in the Pāli suttas, the discourses where the Buddha says that nirvana is ‘clearly visible, immediate, inviting, uplifting, and personally experienced [by the wise’. He says that about the dharma. He says that about nirvana. Nirvana is clearly visible. In my understanding, nirvana therefore is every moment in which you rest in a non-reactive state of mind. This is the classic definition of nirvana which, again, we find in the suttas; this is not later commentarial material.
The Buddha says nirvana is the stopping of greed, the stopping of hatred, the stopping of delusion. Now that’s usually taken to mean the complete and final stopping of all those things. I don’t read it that way. I read it that every moment in your experience as a human being, you find yourself in a still, quiet, open, responsive frame of mind, you are tasting nirvana. You’re tasting a mind that is not governed by your attachments, your fears, your hatreds, your opinions. That is nirvana.
In ELSA, we speak of S, seeing the stopping of reactivity. We’re actually saying seeing nirvana, seeing those nirvanic moments that open up maybe just for a brief second or two and then get taken over by something else. But the point of the third task is actually to see and to dwell in a non-reactive, i.e. a nirvanic perspective.
The other term you use – enlightenment, which is bodhi, awakening I prefer really to enlightenment – encompasses all four tasks. Again, going back to the earliest discourse of the Buddha, he defines awakening quite explicitly as having recognised, performed and accomplished the four tasks. That is awakening. If we think of that as a process rather than a final state, the process of embracing, letting go, seeing, and acting, that is the process of waking up. We might one day get to a point where we’re completely awake, but that, I think, is probably more of a useful ideal to head for rather than something we would become attached to and think we should actually get there. It’s asymptotic in that sense. In other words, we need to think in those terms but not to take that too literally.
So, awakening is the whole process of all four tasks. Again, there is sound early canonical basis for that. Nirvana is a sort of hinge. I sometimes think of nirvana as the hinge of awakening, the hinge of enlightenment. It’s the letting, it’s the seeing, it’s the embracing, letting go, stopping, that is nirvana. And then responding. So nirvana is the crux, the hinge on which the process of awakening turns.
Noah: I love that. I love that. Nirvanic moments. Because we can all experience those throughout the day, and I think we all do. Then we conceptualise it and now we’re looking for our concept and then we’re not seeing it, and yet it’s there all along. I love awakening as a way of being rather than a destination. You realise the process is that you’re always getting it, but you never get it.
Stephen: That’s right.
Noah: And the moment you think you get it, you didn’t get it, because the point was that you’re getting it, not that you get it.
Stephen: Yeah. It’s gone.
Noah: Yeah. I love that. Okay. It’s 10:33 here so I know you’ve got duties.
Stephen: I have kitchen duties now, I’m afraid. As a secular Buddhist, I have to go now and help prepare the evening meal for my wife and my mother-in-law.
Noah: Okay. Again, I just want to say thank you. It’s been so enjoyable spending this time talking to you on multiple perspectives, because discussing this is a topic that I’m passionate about. That’s why I have the podcast, but also just as a fan and as someone who has deep gratitude for your work, for the effort you’ve put into presenting the ideas. The way that you’ve presented them has changed my life, and directly affected many, many lives for the better, to have more joy and more contentment and peace in life. For this, I am extremely grateful to you. And I think it’s really neat that I get to express this to you in person, someone who’s affected me in so many ways, and here I get to thank you. It’s really a neat moment for me, so thank you very much.
Stephen: That’s very kind of you, Noah, and it somehow makes my work worthwhile. I live a lot of my time fairly isolated in this village in France, reading books and writing texts, and so it means a lot to me that you’ve found my work so valuable. It gives me a real impetus to keep going. Likewise, those of you who are listening to the podcast, or who watch it, I really hope that these ideas are workable for you. Please don’t get attached to them. They’re just tools we can use. They’re not doctrines that we need to hold onto as though they’re final revealed truths, or anything like that, so thank you.
Noah: Thank you. Great. That’s a wonderful closing. Thank you.