… Use the material on this page as a self study course, or with others to run a face-to-face study course in your community, or as an online course.
This eight-part course uses recorded talks by Stephen Batchelor and Roshi Joan Halifax given at Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA in which they rebuild the standard ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism from the ground up, rendering them as noble tasks. In a similar way, they probe the ‘Four Great Bodhisattva Vows,’ and how these vows appear to have been based on four tasks.
Stephen sets aside orthodox interpretations of early Buddhist texts to discover a human-scale, engaged Buddha, a man more concerned with prescriptions for full human participation than descriptions of metaphysical truths. He re-renders the well-known prescription with the acronym ELSA:
- Embrace life
- Let go of reactivity
- Stop (or behold the stopping of) reactivity
How to use this material
To run your own study course, download the study guides and stream or download the talks. If you’ll be organising a group of friends to do this together, listen to the talks beforehand and go through the questions in the study guide. As you listen to the talks and work through the questions, in addition to your ‘answers’ make a note of anything else you’d like to discuss with the group. Treat this as a series of conversations in which opinions are the currency of your exchange. There are no right answers.
After completing each study guide, highlight the questions you believe to be the most interesting, perplexing or ridiculous. You probably won’t want to run through the questions sequentially, rather discuss those that each person has highlighted, addressing points that are of the most interest in the time you have together.
When you’ve gone through the course, let us know how it went – and don’t forget to organise a small celebration at the end.
• DISCUSSION 1, PART 1 – Introductory session
Introducing the workshop, Stephen first gleans a dozen versions of what it might mean to be completely human from the audience. Then Roshi Joan ponders her role, ‘sitting in a motorcycle sidecar,’ as Stephen zooms down the highway of a secular dharma. And what is the role of the workshop participants? Can we both absorb the depth and breadth of Stephen’s evolving thought and at the same time explore our own views? Can we have a mutual exchange to shrink that perennial pedagogic gnarl in which the identified expert controls the field?
Stephen outlines the shape of the weekend, what will be explored in different sessions, and invites us to appreciate our temporary sangha – a common occurrence in western dharma circles. This is a moment of community – held together by shared concerns – and we can connect with the human being underneath our superficial liking or disliking. This person also was born, also will die.
• DISCUSSION 1, PART 2 – The first task – embracing the whole of life
Stephen argues that the Buddha never intended his first task as a metaphysical, flattening dogma, such as ‘all life is suffering’. Only in following the injunction to embrace life as given do we discover its full poignant and tragic dimensions – which always exceed representation – are ever too much. This encounter with great doubt entails cognitive, empathetic and aesthetic awakenings as we cede our stale habit territory to the overwhelming strangeness of life. This is the Buddha’s nirvana: not a metaphysical ‘unconditioned’, rather a way of seeing and responding that is specifically unconditioned or undetermined by what we want, what we fear and what we believe (greed, aversion and delusion, also known as reactivity).
• DISCUSSION 2, PART 3 – The first Great Vow
After group discussions on the theme, ‘where is my edge in the task of embracing life?’, Stephen and Roshi Joan introduce the Four Great Vows (putting them into an interesting historical context) and probe the first vow: ‘creations are numberless, I vow to free them’. Stephen likes the never-ending nature of the task, both because it punctures the idea of a final result of practice and because, grandiose though the task seems, it’s also natural to us in some way: we really are not living our full humanity unless we respond feelingly to all feeling beings. Roshi explains the choice in her translation of ‘creations’ rather than ‘sentient beings.’ For one thing, it includes mountains and rivers, thoughts and feelings.
• DISCUSSION 2, PART 4 – Responding to retreatants’ questions
Stephen and Roshi Joan answer questions on empathy and how it might differ from compassion, the place of ritual in a secular dharma practice, an ethic of risk, tradition as a dialogue between present and past, and how believers are in fact agnostics.
• DISCUSSION 3, PART 5 – The second task: letting go of reactivity
Here Stephen facets the notions of reactivity and letting go, sounds out the several resonances of a bunch of scriptural metaphors and explains his translation choices. For instance, reactivity (versus craving, desire etc.) encompasses greed, hatred and delusion, and seems more exactly something with which ‘the world is burning,’ as Buddha said. Stephen considers this reactivity a naturalistic inheritance, encoded in our limbic system rather than in beginningless karma. Gotama’s great discovery didn’t destroy Mara the tempter/deluder, it revealed a way of being with Mara but not of him. Part of this way is letting go – which suggests that the ‘embrace’ of the first task – is simultaneously a release.
• DISCUSSION 4, PART 6 – The second Great Vow
After themed small-group discussions and a debrief, Roshi Joan and Stephen discuss the second great vow: ‘delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them’, in Roshi’s translation. Roshi says transform is an interpretive translation, based unabashedly on her own experience and her sense of what is useful in our current psychological context. For wisdom is to be discerned in greed, anger and ignorance/not knowing, and whoever ‘ends’ anything (as it’s more commonly translated)? Stephen examines shades of possible translation from the Chinese original and debuts his own secular dharma rendition.
• DISCUSSION 4, PART 7 – a Q & A session
Stephen and Roshi Joan take questions about awareness and non-reactivity, about the soul and afterlife – ‘can we be fully alive without considering these questions?’ – about transforming delusions as against ending them or letting go. Here, Stephen and Roshi disagree. They also discuss whether there should be different versions of the four tasks for speakers of American and British English.
• DISCUSSION 5, PART 8 – The third task: stopping reactivity
This examination of the character, history and linguistics of the buddhist idea of stopping reactivity – i.e. of freedom, both from and to – is extraordinarily dense with fresh, intriguing points. It is unlike any of Stephen’s previous sessions. What does it mean to stop reactivity, or rather to behold the stopping that follows naturally from embracing/letting go – to fully apprehend that fresh clearing?
Stephen looks to neglected corners and readings of the suttas for insight. He finds an emphasis on the immediacy and immanence of stopping/nirvana, a view more often associated with later traditions. He finds that they speak of dwelling in such emptiness versus merely knowing or realising it, like Nagarjuna’s later emphasis on emptying rather than emptiness. He points out the error in translations such as The Deathless, The Unborn: rather, deathlessness describes those moments when we’re not bound by reaction, since reactivity is a kind of living death.
• DISCUSSION 6, PART 9 – Q & A and the third Great Vow
‘Reality is boundless; I vow to perceive it’ or ‘dharma gates are numberless; I vow to enter them’ – how does this vow map onto the third task of stopping reactivity? Stephen concedes the connection is more obscure here. The key, he believes, is that stopping reactivity also means seeing the emptiness of reactions – an opening, a clearing, a ‘dharma gate’ through which we step onto a path. Thus every moment, says Roshi, is a ‘dharma door’.
Before exploring the third vow above, Stephen and Roshi harvest insights from small group discussions. Afterwards, they take questions about groundlessness, about whether there are buddhist myths that articulate feminine ways of dwelling besides home-leaving or earth-mother, and whether Stephen and Roshi ever have drag-out battles.
• DISCUSSION 7, PART 10 – A Q & A session
Stephen and Roshi Joan take questions about responding to different kinds of thought/reaction, climate change, intention and what motivates action, the buddhist teaching on the near enemies to compassion, equanimity, benevolence and sympathetic joy.
• DISCUSSION 8, PART 11a – the fourth task: acting
To trace Gotama’s vision of enlightened action, Stephen looks at his portrayal of a ‘stream enterer’, someone who accomplishes the third task. Such a person sheds three fetters: doubt, in the sense of deep vacillation; vanity – thereby becoming a truer person rather than a no-one; and reliance on a legalistic morality. The emptiness where these fetters had been forms a path, and affords creative autonomy to respond to ethical contingencies. The deeper problem with reactivity is not that it causes suffering (though it does) – it’s that it obstructs the flow of life.
• DISCUSSION 8, PART 11b – Cultivating a culture of awakening
At one point during the final presentation (Part 11a) that precedes this Q & A, Stephen pondered his particular affinities with zen. Wherefore the warm embrace of old zen friends, while his heresies inspire a cooler distance in colleagues of other traditions? Is it thanks to zen’s emphasis on questioning and doubt? Here, as if in that spirit, Roshi Joan and Stephen let fly a few affectionate sparks.
JOAN HALIFAX ROSHI is a Buddhist teacher, zen priest, anthropologist and author. She is founder, abbot, and head teacher of Upaya Zen Centre, a Buddhist monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is director of the project Being with Dying and founder and director of Upaya Prison Project that develops programmes on meditation for prisoners. For the past 25 years, she has been active in environmental work. She studied for a decade with zen teacher Seung Sahn and was a teacher in the Kwan Um zen school. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and was given Inka by Roshi Bernie Glassman. A founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, for more than three decades she has focused on applied Buddhism. Her books include The Human Encounter with Death (with Stanislav Grof); The Fruitful Darkness; Simplicity in the Complex: A Buddhist Life in America; Being with Dying; and Wisdom Beyond Wisdom (with Kazuaki Tanashashi).
STEPHEN BATCHELOR is a contemporary dharma teacher and writer, best known for his secular or agnostic approach to the dharma. He considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs. Through his writings, translations and teaching, Stephen engages in a critical exploration of the role of the dharma in the modern world, which has earned him condemnation as a heretic and praise as a reformer. He spent his young adult life as a Buddhist monk, first in the Tibetan tradition and later in Korean sŏn. He has been the coordinator of Sharpham Trust and a guiding teacher at Gaia House Meditation Centre since 1990. Stephen is one of the co-founders of Bodhi College, a European centre for early Buddhist teaching in a secular age. He is the translator and author of various books and articles on Buddhism, including the bestselling Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the Devil: a meditation on good and evil and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. His most recent books include After Buddhism – rethinking the dharma for a secular age and What is this? Ancient questions for modern minds (with Martine Batchelor).
We thank Christine Johnson for sharing the study guides she created for this course. If you have any questions or wish to thank her yourself send her an email.
A Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 New Zealand License applies to all material from this course.