A secular approach to insight meditation

November 1, 2015

This dharma talk was given to Southern Insight Meditation (Christchurch) in October 2015.

This evening’s topic brings together a relatively recent current in the dharma world – secular dharma, aka ‘secular Buddhism’ – with the much older practice of insight meditation. Insight meditation can fairly lay claim to being the dharma’s central meditation practice. Let’s first up get clear what each of these terms means before exploring their relationship.

The Buddha’s discourse on the focuses of awareness – the Satipatthāna sutta – is the foundational text of insight meditation. Each of the three metropolitan insight sanghas in Sydney have been studying this text over 18 monthly sessions, using Anālayo’s excellent 2003 translation and commentary, Satipatthāna: the direct path to realisation as a textbook. This is quite an effort to put into a discourse just ten pages long. But to my mind it’s well nigh essential for anyone dedicated to this practice.

Years ago I attended a talk by a senior Theravādin monk. There he sat cross-legged in his robes, his hair and eyebrows duly shaven off, and declared: ‘I am not a Buddhist. No other labels fit me either. I’m just someone who studies and practises the Satipatthāna sutta.’

I had some sympathy with this position. But the sutta condenses and alludes to essential points of dharma, including most of the important classical lists – to which it adds three more, starting with the four focuses of awareness themselves, which I’ll come to in a moment. So if your life revolves around this sutta, then you’re certainly in an intimate relationship with the buddhadharma.

Assuming the Buddha delivered this teaching in one session, then he did so late in his career. It draws on his long experience as a practitioner and a teacher. It condenses his teaching, and operationalises it for meditative purposes. Maybe he wasn’t a Buddhist either – after all, that label was only invented 200 years ago. Great innovators commonly find themselves having to disown the debased orthodoxy that their followers often distil from their ideas. Karl Marx, for instance, explicitly said that he wasn’t a Marxist.

A peep inside the sutta

The sutta in fact yields up three new lists and intertwines them. The most important and best known of them sets out the four focuses of awareness (satipatthāna), conventionally known as the four foundations of mindfulness:

  • experiences of the body – drawing on our crucial nature as embodied beings;
  • feeling tones that arise with each experience of sense contact;
  • mind states – moods and emotions; and finally
  • dhammas – phenomena, cognitive contents of mind.

It’s under the rubric of this fourth focus of awareness that the Buddha references his central teachings, from the five hindrances to what some secular Buddhists call ‘the four tasks’ or ‘the fourfold task’ (aka ‘the Four Noble Truths’). For more on this see Stephen Batchelor’s new book After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age.

In general, the sutta offers us a choice of which of these focuses (and sub-focuses and sub-sub-focuses) to home in on in a sit or part of a sit, or to be open to all four at once. And the advice isn’t limited to formal meditation – it’s something we can take out into our everyday lives.

The first of the less well-known list is that of the four mental qualities we need to cultivate and bring to our awareness practice, on and off the cushion:

  • diligence – ātāpī
  • clearly knowing – sampajāna
  • freedom from worldly desires and discontent, and above all
  • our old friend sati – recollection, awareness, perhaps ‘recollective awareness’ – commonly known as mindfulness.

These mental qualities strengthen as we gain traction in the practice.

The third new list comes in the recurring ‘refrains’ after each focus of awareness is introduced. Here the sutta gives prominence to:

  • the choice between contemplating experience either internally, or externally, or both internally and externally; or
  • observing the rising and passing away (i.e., impermanence) of the elements of experience; or
  • simply noting the existence of the area of experience in question, so as to facilitate ‘bare knowledge’ and ‘continuous attention.’

In sum, the sutta offers us a lot of choice about where to take our practice at any particular time. The range of choices is greatly increased by the multiple exercises grouped under each of the four focuses. The emphasis on choice in the process of meditation (in the complete absence of formulaic prescriptions) might lead us to the sense that deliberate and creative process goes to the heart of the practice, which is designed for autonomous, inner-directed practitioners.

So the sutta is not providing us with a strip map for a journey from A to B along a single well-trodden track. Rather, it’s providing quite a detailed map of a whole inner topography that we can explore along myriad alternative routes. We can follow our noses, or we can prioritise visiting certain features over others.

The map is there to help us to orient ourselves in our complex inner world, and make the best choices in our effort to practise the ancient transcultural wisdom of ‘know thyself’.

Pragmatism in the philosophical sense and not metaphysics drives the cartography. It and the choice of features on the map are useful, rather than pointing to some sort of ultimate reality. That emphasis on usefulness colours the choice of the four focuses of awareness themselves. They don’t point to some sort of absolute realities either, they serve a purpose rather than offer revelations.

We don’t know to what extent the sutta was edited and tampered with after the Buddha’s death – during the 400 years or so when the Pali canon was still in a fluid state, and most of that time a purely oral tradition. But we can note that the sutta – as it stands – implicitly proposes two divergent agendas:

  • the open-ended exploration of and deepening into our subjective experience and
  • the achievement of some sort of end-state ‘realisation’/‘final knowledge’ understood as salvation or liberation by transcending the human condition.

If we were to seize on this second agenda, then we’d reduce the great map, that the sutta unfurls, to a strip map taking us a long a well-worn track to a palpable finishing line. We’d be using it in a goal-oriented way.

Monastic appropriations of satipatthāna practice

Very schematically speaking, the monastically developed approaches to vipassanā meditation, that we’ve inherited from Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, have followed the second of these agendas, and have allowed the foundational Theravādin commentaries – the Abhidhamma and the Visuddhimagga – to upstage the sutta itself.

This has turned the practice into a technical, formulaic one. The original map then becomes a strip map, with a great deal of our actual experience in meditation written off as ‘not meditation’. Consigned to the cutting-room floor.

These practices have no doubt served their original purpose well: training celibate men confined in hierarchical total institutions. But for modern women and men living much more complex lives, they may be far less fit-for-purpose. And with meditation reduced to the development of technique, many are going to come away with a sense of failure.

The alternative is to reoccupy the whole territory that the sutta maps. Everything we experience when we sit down to meditate in a non-formulaic approach or that we experience in everyday life then becomes relevant, part of our meditative experience. This style of meditation relinquishes the goal orientation, and focuses instead on process, which is its own reward.

In a month’s time you’ll have an opportunity to test drive a good example of non-formulaic insight meditation when Jason Siff leads a half-day retreat here based on his version of it, recollective awareness. So in the time remaining time I’ll say a few words about the first part of my topic: a secular approach.

Secular dharma

As the dharma spread out from India and Sri Lanka, it encountered cultures markedly different from classical Indian culture – ones like the Chinese, that was highly developed and didn’t share its Indian counterpart’s pessimism about the human condition, and so were less interested in the concept of salvation (‘liberation’, ‘release’) through transcendence.

Chinese scholar monks immersed themselves in the original Indian version. Then, as they reissued the dharma in their own cultural terms, starting two millennia ago, emphases shifted and new locally-generated ideas and practices complemented the old imported ones.

The Chinese were following a secular agenda: they wanted to reframe the dharma so that it worked for their time, their place, and their culture. That’s what secularity is about: our time, our culture, our culturally-specific way of experiencing life. By following this agenda, they greatly enriched the dharma – among many other things giving it and indirectly us Ch’an or Zen Buddhism.

Those of us who are following a secular trajectory in the 21st century west are simply following this precedent. The process starts by reading the early texts afresh, using the best means available to us to crack open their meaning and scrape away the apocrypha added since the Buddha’s death.

Here we find a matrix of concepts and practices with strong affinities to currents in modern and some ancient western thought, such pragmatism, scepticism, and phenomenology – post-metaphysical thought in its various manifestations.

These currents help us enormously to retrieve and renew the practice, and to re-articulate the themes in the early teachings in ways that ‘land’ in people like us. Stephen Batchelor’s soon-to-be-released book After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age brilliantly exemplifies the process.

So ‘a secular approach to insight meditation’ involves immersing ourselves in the Satipatthāna sutta and applying it in practice so as to reoccupy the whole inner landscape that it uncovers. The process of gaining ever deeper insight into the human condition and our own immersion in it – with all its transformative effects – is its own reward. We’re drawing a straight line from this practice to modern conceptions of the human condition and what the good life consists in.



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One Reply to “A secular approach to insight meditation”

Paul Drielsma

Thanks… well put. I am forever mindfully grateful to the thorough discipline that others have applied (Stephen Batchelor in particular) to then offer people like me a framework for the transformative effects of which you speak. This “reading the early texts afresh, using the best means available to us to crack open their meaning and scrape away the apocrypha added since the Buddha’s death” is such a large project and I am so lucky to live in an age where I have access to this immense work that has been done and laid open to me. Metta.

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