Most of us who’ve contributed to the development of secular Buddhism first came to the dharma in ancestral-Buddhist guise, or in its still-religious westernised adaptations. Both manifestations self-described as Buddhism-as-such. In our subsequent journey towards secular Buddhism we initially worked from basic premises that looked like common coin and needed no re-introduction. Instead, we disputed more ‘advanced’ issues – ones that arose from the distorting effects of institutionalising the Buddha’s legacy in religious forms and dogmas after his death.
We thus spoke and wrote for the already-initiated, not for complete newcomers to the dharma. Beginners and the merely curious still had to seek their grounding in basic concepts (the four noble truths, the eightfold path, etc.) from religious primers. This situation left a vital gap in the literature, even as secular perspectives matured and secular writers began to home in on these very concepts as they appear in the earliest teachings. Lenorë Lambert – an established dharma teacher and herself a veteran of the conventional-to-secular journey – has now plugged that vital gap with her new book, The Buddha for modern minds.
She writes explicitly for a readership with no prior knowledge of the dharma – those who are having their ‘first date’ with it. She adopts an appropriately lively, down-to-earth style throughout. Her book contains recurring humorous moments, and doesn’t draw the line at ‘dumb’ questions like: why are some Buddha images fat while some are thin? She flags ‘practical tips’ throughout, including one gem on how to rid your kitchen of cockroaches without breaking the first precept, and at the same time winning the heart of your neighbour’s cat.
Yet she tackles the big questions that – in my experience, and presumably hers – arise in interactive introductory courses. ‘Do I need to subscribe to the doctrine of rebirth to practise the dharma?’ ‘Why can’t I follow the meditation instructions?’ ‘Is there more to the dharma than meditation?’ ‘Do I have to stop eating meat/drinking alcohol/enjoying sensual pleasures in order to commit to this practice?’ And so on.
Some of Lambert’s practical tips arise out of her ongoing career as a mature-age athlete (specialising in 400-metre hurdle races); she regularly competes in international events. This activity involves such meticulous self-management on dharmic principles that her book evokes the legacy of Eugen Herrigel’s 1948 classic, Zen in the art of archery.
Throughout her book she contrasts orthodox Buddhism with secular dharma on specific points, so she avoids the temptation to wish-wash over the divergences between them. In particular, her weighty part 2 – entitled ‘The four great tasks’ – is structured around Ñanavīra’s and Stephen Batchelor’s corrected translation of the Buddha’s first discourse and its supposed announcement of the four noble truths. She presents the dharma as a path for making the most of this life, one in which ethics, meditation and wisdom each find their due proportion. Throughout her presentation she emphasises the crucial role of curiosity about (and investigation of) one’s own closely observed experience, rather than the application of settled doctrine. In this way she serves a readership that goes well beyond her beginner target audience.
As with most versions of secular Buddhism, she lifts the level of ambition for dharma practice from the mere avoidance of suffering (which conventional Buddhism equates with ‘happiness’ and the main game) to the more challenging goal of full human flourishing. The first task that the Buddha named requires us to embrace and deeply understand – not flee from – sources of inevitable suffering that inhere in the human condition itself. Full human flourishing starts when we ground ourselves in the human condition as we encounter it, with all its difficulties, and use the dharma to learn to flourish within it.
Lambert draws on cognitive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy in her exploration of ways to apply the dharma to everyday life. They constitute good servants but potentially bad masters in this context, and occasionally their prescriptions burden the text with unnecessary complexity. In dealing with meditation, too, she tends to stay on the cognitive level, and thus neglect the sublime formative experiences it can offer us. But in general she doesn’t allow these psych disciplines to shrink dharma practice down to a self-help programme for adapting to the status quo. In her hands on the contrary, dharma practice continues to serve ultimate spiritual aspirations.
There’s one exception to note here, though: the book never leaves the confines of the dharma practitioner’s inner life and private interactions. S/he never gets to extend the dharma’s meta-ethic of care into civic life, even in the face of humanity’s current existential crises of climate change and spiralling social injustice. The book acknowledges environmental problems, but the ‘solution’ relies on better individual choices to reduce one’s private ‘footprint’ only, and doesn’t extend to striving for the systemic changes that would tackle these crises at source. In this way it remains within the individualistic confines of cognitive psychology, and (ironically) of conventional Buddhism.
Nonetheless, this book admirably achieves its purpose of preparing the newcomer for a promising ‘first date’ with the dharma and its practice. It does so in impeccably secular terms that are securely based in the early teachings. In this way it is – so far – one of a kind. It also enjoys the advantage of being accessibly (and often scintillatingly) written.
The Buddha for modern minds: a non-religious guide to the Buddha and his teachings
by Lenorë Lambert
Sydney: Flourish Press, 2021. 978-0-6450650-2-2