The following is the text of an online dharma talk which Winton Higgins gave to the Bluegum Sangha (Australia) on 18 January 2021.
The Tuwhiri Project will be releasing a new book by Winton Higgins, Refit: selected writings on secular Buddhism, in March 2021. In this book Winton Higgins looks at where secular Buddhism came from, its affinities in western culture, and how it’s likely to develop as a guide to full human flourishing in the years to come.
My starting points tonight (and the dharma’s more generally) are (a) the first of the four great tasks – to fully understand and embrace dukkha (the difficult experiences in our lives); and (b) the first factor in the eightfold path: appropriate view (sammā diṭṭhi). In conventional circles these items are called ‘life is suffering’ and ‘right view’ respectively, but I’ll leave recent debates around the terms to one side for now.
In introducing dukkha in his first discourse, the Buddha specified what he meant by it: birth, death, ageing, sickness, being separated from what and whom we love, being thrown together with what and whom we detest, frustration, and our overall psycho-physical vulnerability. No human being reaches maturity without being touched by each one of these experiences, so we can say that they together represent essential aspects of the human condition. In brutal summary, the Buddha’s advice is: face it squarely, and deal with it wisely.
‘View’ refers to the working assumptions (especially about dukkha) that we bring to our dharma practice, including how we parse our meditative experience. ‘Appropriate view’ guides and fine-tunes our practice; inappropriate view hinders and misleads it. As we skilfully ply our practice and learn from our experience, we refine and enrich our view still further.
As some of you may have come to suspect, I have two related priorities in helping the dharma sink roots into a western culture like ours: finding western affinities that elucidate dharmic themes in culturally available ways; and historically situating the dharma together with its western affinities.
The example of a western affinity I want to explore with you now is the tragic tradition, from its origins in ancient Athens, through Shakespeare, and on to the present day.
I’ve often been struck by the way this tradition powerfully challenges a dominant mindset in modern western culture, just as the dharma does. According to this mindset, we’re supposed to lead calm, secure, satisfying lives that roll on to a vague, distant horizon where we just ‘pass away’. If one of the experiences named in the Buddha’s list of tribulations intrudes, then it’s an anomaly, a ‘problem’. We then look for a quick ‘solution’ – an operation, a divorce, a pill, a vaccine – so we can get back to the plain-sailing life we’re supposed to be leading. If we can’t find a ready solution to our ‘problem’, we sink into depression; we say ‘no’ to life. We’ve been robbed.
The hero-rescuer-redeemer of western myth supports this mindset. Whether it’s Sir Galahad, Joan of Arc, John Wayne, Jesus or Wonder Woman, they all put paid to our problems so we can return to our God-given tranquil lives. We’re just the spectators to (and grateful beneficiaries of) their heroics.
The Buddha and the western tragedians have always seemed to me to present a starkly alternative view. While they’d certainly support anything that alleviates suffering and dampens conflict, they see our difficulties as an essential part of the warp and weft of every human life. We have limited purchase on the conditions that give rise to them. According to the dharma and the tragic tradition, these difficulties challenge us to embrace them and respond to them as best we can, to assert our human agency, to seize the initiative, always saying ‘yes’ to life no matter how dire the predicament. We must never fall into victim mode.
Tragedy and the real deal
Recently I stumbled on a new book that expounds tragic vision in a fresh study – Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and us. I draw on his work in what follows. Though it wasn’t part of Critchley’s intention, it enriches my sense of the affinity with the dharma in question, beginning with the startling fact that the Buddha in northeast India and the classical tragic tradition in Athens began at exactly the same point in history. The life-spans of the three most prominent classical tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) all overlapped the Buddha’s (480-400 BCE). According to modern scholarship, the Buddha and Euripides were probably even born in the same year.
In both cases the tradition-founders lived in turbulent times. In passing, the Pali canon tells a tale of constant conflict between and within five quasi-states, including war, genocide, regicide and parricide, going on just off-stage while the Buddha is teaching. During the same period the Athenians fought a protracted series of wars against the Persians, and then against the Spartans (the Peloponnesian wars that Thucydides recorded).
Some writers conjecture that Greek thinkers might have enjoyed contact with their Indian counterparts. But I’d rather look for the source of the affinity in the parties’ similar historical circumstances. They were all children of the agricultural revolution going on in several regions of the world at the same time. This process saw the beginning of trade, money economy, and fierce rivalries over the spoils. It also saw urbanisation, some freedom of movement, and the liberation of urbanites from the rigid social and cultural/religious structures of rural life.
The new cities spawned groups of people (men, usually) who could meet and discuss their new existential situations wherein they had a lot more life options, and thus a lot more disappointments when they found their ambitions blocked, often by very human turmoil and strife. The dharma and Greek tragedy start right there.
It would be difficult to finish high school without hearing the names of the prominent tragic heroes from those time – Oedipus, Electra, Hecuba, Antigone and others – names that continue to inspire modern literature and psychoanalytic writing. We become familiar with the tragic ethos itself through Shakespeare’s early-modern contribution to the tradition, especially in his four central tragedies named after their heroes: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
These figures aren’t redeeming, rescuing, problem-solving heroes; in each case the hero is the problem. They epitomise the human condition. They find themselves disoriented in their acute predicaments, and don’t know how to act. Not because they’re stupid, but because their predicaments are ambiguous; they’re torn between conflicting demands, each of which seems to have justice on its side. The web they’re caught in is partly due to ‘fate’ – past events and other circumstances beyond their control. These circumstances arise out of the givens of their kinship histories and the work of mischievous gods (though as dharma practitioners we’d call them ‘contingency’ or ‘dependent arising’).
And yet, to a vital extent, these tragic figures have colluded with their fate. In their simultaneous knowing and not-knowing what the score is, they seal their own fate. They’re complicit in the mayhem they unleash. Hamlet knows full well that his uncle murdered his father, but pretends he needs more proof as a way of masking his own irresolution.
Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, abandoned him at birth and he doesn’t know who they are. But he knows that the old man he kills in a road-rage incident might well be his father, and the woman he subsequently marries might well be his mother.
Agamemnon, commander of the Greek expedition to Troy, has sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to the god Artemis, to guarantee fair winds for the voyage. He can hardly complain when, after returning victorious years later and taking his first bath back in his own home, his wife – Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra – comes in with a knife and stabs him to death. In each case the hero is complicit in his fate.
This idea of colluding in our fate matches the way the Buddha presented the role of karma in our lives: it’s one of several kinds of causes that impact our lives, but it’s the only one for which we shoulder responsibility. So tragedy teaches self-insight and self-responsibility just as the dharma does, albeit in more dramatic terms. And that’s the real contrast between the two traditions.
The Athenian tragedies were staged in huge and highly significant civic events. The spectators were the world’s first democratic citizens. The performances aimed to make them think, to present them with riddles that they had to discuss and puzzle over – not to provide them with pat answers that they could take home and feed to their kids. The public performance of tragedy constituted a vital part of the city-state’s governance. In their aliveness (the French actor Isabelle Huppert’s word), performances of tragedy drove these democratic citizens to do their civic duty and work through common issues.
So what is this tragic vision (or ‘tragic consciousness’ as he puts it) that Critchley extols? Disorder, conflict, moral ambiguity, trauma, complexity and limited personal autonomy permeate our life experience. This world was not made for us, nor we for this world – an insight that today’s climate emergency limpidly demonstrates. There is no one omnipotent god or other authority who makes sense of it all and will at last bring the world to order. And so no grand metaphysical theory, about how it all hangs together in the end, can help us.
Thus the mood of tragedy is realistic about the importance and limits of our self-determination, and deeply sceptical of grand metaphysical theories. Critchley highlights the conflict between the tragedians and the great philosophers of their time (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle). The tragedians were the democrats with enormous influence over the citizenry – to the extent that Plato wanted to ban them altogether from the city-state, which he’d like to see turn into a totalitarian regime ruled by emotionally cold philosopher-kings (see his Republic).
Here, of course, we’re back with the Buddha. With his consistent refusal to engage with metaphysics, and insistence that we stay intensely focused on our actual predicament: think of the parable of the man shot with a poisoned arrow. His insistence on self-insight and self-responsibility constitutes the core of his teaching.
Over the last two centuries western sensibility has moved away from a monotheistic mindset and towards a more sceptical and secular one. For this reason, Critchley can make the startling claims that ‘in important ways, we are…more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime’ (p. 69), and thus we could reasonably see the classical tragedians as our contemporaries. For similar reasons, I’d suggest, we could see the sceptical, realistic Buddha of the Pali canon as our contemporary.
In his last paragraph, Critchley makes another claim that strongly reminds me of meditative experience in the Buddha’s dispensation:
What can happen [during tragic performances] is that we can give ourselves over to that intensity of life, the happening of aliveness, and open ourselves to the core. One looks at the core of aliveness and it looks back. Just for a moment. And then one walks down the street, and the world resumes its relentless hum. But the memory of the core remains with us (p. 280).
 London: Profile Books, 2020