When I was being treated for bowel cancer just over 10 years ago my trust in secular dharma practice was strengthened. I had a very heavy dose of chemotherapy which led not to only great pain but also a powerful sense that I was running on a very flat battery, barely alive. Dharma practice became my refuge. I composed a Secular Buddhist Credo.
I believe in the mystery of life Fleeting for each, forever for all. In Dharma practice we can address that mystery, Without distraction or predisposition. So that I can learn how to be And how to act, As best I can: Living mindfully in each moment, Discarding the blandishments of ego, Avoiding grasping and attachment, With love for all living creatures, Recognising, with equanimity, that everything changes, And that without death there can be no life.
When I recovered from the cancer, I continued to find this credo a useful underpinning of my practice. It affirms my strongly held belief in a materialist view of life. For me, matter develops through evolution into conscious beings who receive impressions through their senses, react to them and create intentions. That is the mystery which we celebrate and in which we participate.
For some years I had been influenced by Stephen Batchelor’s suggestion, at one of his Gaia House Secular Buddhist retreats, that there may have been contact between Greek philosophers and followers of Gautama during Alexander’s advance into northern India in the fourth century BC. Scholars have explored the development of the hybrid communities that then developed. Both Epicureanism and Stoicism have practices somewhat similar to the Dharma. Could western and eastern philosophical traditions combine to make an appropriate ethical secular philosophy of praxis in our globalised 21st century?
More recently my friend Tom Bulley, introduced me to his interest in Karl Marx’s early writings, including his PhD thesis on Democritus and Epicurus. In his thesis Marx highlighted the importance of certain Greek philosophies in understanding how our world and human experience is shaped. He asked: ‘Are Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism particular phenomena? Are they not the prototypes of the Roman mind, the shape in which Greece wandered to Rome? Is not their essence so full of character, so intense and eternal that the modern world itself has to admit them to full spiritual citizenship?’
The contemporary philosopher Thomas Nail, in his Theory of the Earth and other writings, has taken forward the ideas of Epicurus, as elaborated by Lucretius in De Rerum Naturae and developed a philosophy of matter in motion for our time which he has applied to contemporary problems like climate change.
I have found in Epicurus, the young Marx and Nail perspectives which are consistent with the insights of Gautama; and thus supportive of a Secular Buddhist Credo.
Each line of the credo suggests a particular intention which I may focus on throughout a meditation sitting, or I may follow through more than one in sequence.
I believe in the mystery of life
In the first line I am referring to belief in the truth of my experience following one of the dictionary's definitions of faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
In an article in the Secular Buddhist Network website Winton Higgins provided a useful way of understanding faith in the context of the secular dharma:
Faith’ (saddha) is a key word here. (Thank you, Martin Hägglund, for developing the idea of ‘secular faith’!) The secular dharmic path is not driven by belief in abstract metaphysical ‘truths’, but rather by a commitment to the ethical values of the dharma, and its vision for full human flourishing – for making the most of this risky but invaluable human life.
This is the mystery that puts the open question ‘what is this that thus comes’ at the heart of meditation, without expecting an answer.
Fleeting for each, forever for all
This is an appropriate starting point: the paradox of insignificant individual lives, indeed the insignificant life of the human species in the natural order, along with complex and grand intentions.
In Dharma practice we can address that mystery
The Dharma is a practical way for the question to be asked by an embodied being. It is not a purely intellectual question in the mind. This line always suggests to me the meditative technique of a body scan, as I learned from S.N.Goenka.
So that I can learn how to be
And how to act
A reflection on the purpose of the practice as the road of the Eightfold Path and a fulfilling and ethical way of life.
Living mindfully in each moment
Pointing to a focus on mindfulness meditation, particularly attention to feeling tone – being in this moment and recognising the need to avoid acting from reaction, but instead recognising the space to act creatively instead.
Discarding the blandishments of ego
Here the focus is on the Satipatthana Sutta’s metaphor of the carpenter. Shaping one’s self is like how a carpenter works with wood, working with the grain of the wood. This is my understanding of non-self. I do not need to be a static person shaped by the habits and experiences of the past. I am, in Stephen Batchelor’s words, a work in progress that I can shape through wise thought and action.
Avoiding grasping and attachment
With careful attention to the many forms these take, and their detrimental effects on our lives.
With love for all living creatures
A clear prompt for the cultivation of metta.
Recognising, with equanimity, that everything changes
Introducing a reflection on impermanence (anicca) and the need to avoid reflex or default reactions when confronted with change. external and internal, whether it is perceived as good or bad.
And that without death there can be no life
The only certainty in life is death. Its certain approach is a call to live life fully. Here in particular Hagglund’s This Life is, for me, a source of deep reflection.
An anthem for the mystery of life
Soon after writing the Credo, I was reading a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which celebrated his Catholic faith. I see it is an anthem to celebrate the possibility of sublime moments from the mystery of life that is addressed in the Dharma. Thus, in my version, I substitute the word Life for God in the first and last lines.
PIED BEAUTY After Gerard Manley Hopkins Glory be to Life for dappled things ---- For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon the trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut- falls; finches’ wings Landscape plotted and pieced --- fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow, sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; Life offers us these, whose beauty is all change, Praise Life