Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism

I would like to thank Bernat Font-Clos, Karsten Struhl, and Sharon Tobias for their helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article.


Stephen Batchelor’s reinterpretation of the Four Noble Truths as a fourfold task to facilitate human flourishing is undoubtedly the most well-known aspect of his effort to develop a secular approach to the dharma and to make Buddhism relevant for our contemporary world.

Stephen’s reinterpretation is so significant because it reconstructs the core element of all traditional versions of Buddhism. Buddhists of all lineages believe there are four fundamental truths about the world: 1) suffering exists (or life involves suffering); 2) suffering is caused by craving; 3) suffering can be ended by ceasing to crave; and 4) there is an eightfold path to the ending of suffering based on cultivating wisdom, meditative attainments, and ethics.

While others have argued that the Four Noble Truths should be seen more as tasks, including the English-born Buddhist monk Ñāṇavīra Thera in the 1960s, Stephen’s notion of the fourfold task, as part of his overall, secular approach to Buddhism, represents the clearest and most forceful challenge to traditional Buddhist orthodoxy.  In his view, the Buddha’s  teachings about suffering are not truths to be believed, but injunctions to transform our lives and promote human flourishing in this world.

Stephen developed a pithy acronym for the fourfold task: ELSA.

  • Embrace life, including its tragic aspects
  • Let go of the reactivity which arises when we experience ourselves and the world
  • See and experience the moments of non-reactivity, the moments of mindfulness and compassion, and
  • Act/cultivate the path which allows us to flourish as human beings

The fourfold task is the basis for an approach to the dharma which emphasizes the ethical and pragmatic meaning of the Buddha’s teachings rather than highlighting a set of beliefs  which are presumed to be universal, absolute, and permanent truths.

In line with this approach, Stephen argues that we need to think differently about  the very notion of truth. According to him, the meaning of truth for traditional Buddhists is that a statement or set of statements is true because it corresponds with or reflects an ultimate or objective reality separate from and independent of human beings. Thus, the First Noble Truth – that suffering (dukkha) exists – is a statement that corresponds with the ultimate reality of our world. Whatever our subjective experiences and views might be, the First Noble Truth reflects an objective reality and thus is the only correct view.

Stephen sees this notion of truth as pervasive in traditional Buddhism and the basis of various Buddhist orthodoxies. Disputes between various lineages and schools in Buddhism arise because each lineage or school asserts that they possess the truth about ultimate reality and thus are superior to all others. [1]

To avoid this type of destructive conflict between advocates of various schools and lineages, and to shift the focus to the practical impact of the Buddha’s teachings, Stephen proposes that we adopt a pragmatist theory of truth which abandons the idea of an ultimate reality which is hidden behind the surface of our own experiences. For Stephen and others who adopt this pragmatic position on the meaning of truth, a statement’s truthfulness is based on whether it contributes to human flourishing.

Further, he asserts that we need to see truthfulness as a quality of how we relate to our life.  Truthfulness has to do with how we live, not the truth-value of a statement – i.e., its correspondence with a supposed objective reality. As Stephen expressed this idea in his 2015 book After Buddhism, truth is not a theoretical construct but an existential quality; it implies  ‘…a way of life in which one is true to one’s potential … true to one’s values … and – as a Buddhist – true to the rationale of the dharma… Being “true” in this sense extends beyond how one expresses oneself in words; it has to do with leading a life of integrity, transparency, and honesty in everything one does’.[2]

Tasks versus truths?

Stephen’s notion of the fourfold task and his emphasis on the pragmatic and ethical meaning of the Buddha’s teachings have been crucial in the development of a secular approach to the dharma, which has become a vital trend within Buddhism. Likewise, I believe that his rejection of metaphysical truths as the basis of Buddhism is appropriate and valuable.

Yet, in emphasizing the centrality of tasks in the dharmic path and advocating a pragmatic theory of truth, Stephen has not adequately addressed a legitimate concern about the role and meaning of truth in his approach.  Whether or not it was his conscious intention to do so, it appears that Stephen has set up a dichotomy between truths and tasks for dharma practitioners. One either believes in certain fundamental truths or one engages in certain tasks.  Traditional Buddhism is belief/truth-based and secular Buddhism is task-based.[3]

Among participants in the Secular Buddhist Network’s online introductory course to secular Buddhism, Exploring a secular dharma, this seeming dichotomy has been frequently raised as a concern.  The course participants have been resistant to giving up truths as the basis of their practice. They have also wondered why they must choose between the two – truths or tasks.  Aren’t truths and tasks related to each other? And isn’t it the case that the fourfold task presumes certain beliefs or understandings about human beings and the world? Aren’t these beliefs or understandings truth claims about the human experience?

In my view, the fourfold task as a whole does in fact presuppose a whole set of beliefs and understandings of human experience and the world, including:

  • Life, as experienced by human beings, has an inescapably tragic dimension but also has a joyful/pleasant dimension.
  • Human beings tend to be reactive in relation to our inner and outer experiences as a result of biologically-evolved characteristics and social conditioning.
  • Such reactivity creates ‘surplus’ suffering beyond the emotional and physical pains that are inevitable in life and thus hinder one’s ability to flourish as a human being.
  • By embracing life in all its complexity and learning how to be less reactive, we can live more fulfilling and satisfactory lives – i.e. we can flourish as human beings.
  • We have the ability as human beings to embrace life in this way and cultivate emotional and intellectual capacities which reduce our reactivity.
  • Although we are inescapably connected to the web of causes and conditions that constitute natural existence, our capacity to ‘unhook’ from reactivity through mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion allows us to have ‘nirvanic’ moments in which reactivity is absent.
  • Personal transformation through engaging in the fourfold task is not just for the individual but is inextricably linked to the creation of a more just society in which all human beings flourish.

These statements in turn are based on views about the way the world is at its deepest level and most general form (ontology), what is a just society (political philosophy), the virtues that contribute to human flourishing (ethics), the relationship between the individual and society (sociology), and the essential or natural capacities and characteristics of human beings (psychology). In short, the fourfold task is crucially dependent on a whole series of beliefs, understandings, and theories which justify the value of this approach.

As human beings, as self-conscious, sentient, and embodied animals, when we engage in any task, there is always some set of implicit or explicit beliefs underpinning what we do. Even the most basic, rote tasks have this characteristic. And those beliefs represent a type of truth claim; they are statements about the way human beings and the world are as well as could be.

So, it appears that tasks can never be separated from claims about the nature of human beings and the world – in short, truth claims. The key question is: In terms of the relationship between tasks and truths, what do we mean by truths?

‘Truths’ and ‘truths’

I think that Stephen is absolutely right to critique the notion of metaphysical truths, or truth claims about an ultimate reality, in his secular approach to the dharma. In the first place, debates over metaphysical truths tend to be tautological; the criteria used to judge whether a claim about ultimate reality is correct depend on assumptions that underpin that same account.  Thus, there is no independent standard that we can use to judge which account of ultimate reality is correct.

Further, in the context of Buddhism, the debate over metaphysical truths often takes us away from the essential task at hand – the reduction of suffering. In The Shorter Discourse to Mālunkyāputta  (MN 63) the Buddha himself refused to take a stand on the metaphysical issues of his day – whether the world is eternal, the relationship of the soul to the body, etc. –  primarily for this reason. The debate over metaphysical issues is sterile and irrelevant insofar as it does not help us to gain freedom from suffering.

Finally, as Stephen points out, the assertion of metaphysical truths is both the cause and effect of divisions and conflicts within Buddhism which are in principle not resolvable. Each lineage or school has their own account of ultimate reality and each group’s metaphysical truths are deemed to be superior to other accounts. The tendency for Buddhist to fall prey to ‘superiority conceits’ of various types, a subject of Bhikkhu Analayo’s recent book, is due in part to making metaphysical truths the basis of Buddhism.

For these reasons, making adherence to metaphysical truths the basis of the dharmic path is deeply problematic. But does that mean that we need to reject entirely the idea of truth as the correspondence between a statement expressing a belief or understanding of the world and the way things are?

I would argue that the answer is, no, provided that we make a distinction between two notions of truth as correspondence. The truth claims of traditional Buddhism (and other religions) assert a correspondence between certain core beliefs – e.g. The essential nature of reality is emptiness – and a pre-existent, objective, and ultimate reality. Such claims are universal, absolute, and permanent. Let us call these truth claims with a capital t: ‘Truths’.

The other notion of truth as correspondence involves statements about the world which correspond with or reflect our current understandings and experiences of the world. These understandings and experiences are not presumed to be universal, absolute, and permanent but are, like scientific hypotheses, provisional and subject to refutation or revision in the future. Truth claims based on this type of correspondence are small t ‘truths’.

Consider the following statement which is presupposed in the fourfold task: Human beings have the tendency to crave but also the capacity to be mindful and compassionate. This is a statement or hypothesis about how we, as human beings, are constituted and function in the world. When we speak of the truth of the statement in this second sense of correspondence, we mean that, based on what we currently know about human beings and the natural world, including our subjective experiences, this statement reflects the way things are. It’s an accurate representation of what exists as we currently experience and know it. However, we may develop new understandings of human beings and the world that will require us to revise this statement. We need to keep an open mind; this issue has not been definitively settled for all time.

The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who had a tremendous influence on American philosophy in the first half of the 20th century, distinguished between the two types of truth as correspondence. In response to critics who claimed that his pragmatist theory of truth led to relativism and an anti-realist ontology, Dewey argued that the notion of truth as correspondence has validity but only within the context of ongoing inquiries, whether informal or highly structured, as in scientific experiments. When we develop a belief or hypothesis and test that hypothesis out, then the hypothesis is (provisionally) true if the hypothesis matches up with the consequences or results inferred by that hypothesis and discovered as part of our inquiry. For Dewey, correspondence is not between a statement and a pre-existent reality independent of human beings but between a statement (hypothesis) and what we discover in the world through our inquiry.[4]

If we think of the fourfold task as not just specific actions to take but also as based on a set of ‘hypotheses’ about how to create a flourishing human life, then truth is an important component of the fourfold task. When we engage with the fourfold task, we need to assess the results of our efforts in achieving the stated objective of human flourishing. As the Buddha said repeatedly about the dharmic path, we should not believe something based on someone else’s view, traditional practices, his own words, etc. Instead, he said it was essential have a direct experience of the path; the dharma is something that each person needs to come and see – ‘Ehipassiko’ – for themselves. We need to experience the process and results of the various aspects of the path to know if they actually contribute to our own and others’ flourishing.

Crucially, the results of our efforts to engage with the fourfold task are not predetermined and are affected by a variety of causes and conditions. At the same time, our understanding of human beings and the natural world continues to develop as we gain new knowledge in various fields. Thus, the ‘truth’ of the fourfold task will always be conditional and provisional.  The correspondence between the hypotheses contained in the fourfold task and the inferred results (mindfulness, compassion, a socially just society) will always be subject to future experiences and new ways of understanding ourselves and the world.

In the second of his fourteen mindfulness trainings for engaged Buddhists, on non-attachment to views, Thich Nhat Hanh, expressed a similar perspective as part of his modern reconstruction of the traditional Bodhisattva precepts of Mahayana Buddhism:

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing non-attachment to views and being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.[5]

‘Tasks’ and ‘truths’

My purpose in reexamining the notion of truth in relation to the fourfold task is to avoid the dichotomy between truths and tasks to which Stephen’s version of a pragmatic theory of truth seems prone.  From a pragmatic and ethical perspective, Stephen has correctly pointed out the problems with Buddhism becoming a religion based on metaphysical truths – i.e., Truths. He is also right to assert that the truth value of the fourfold task and other key teachings is based on whether it promotes human flourishing, not some correspondence with an ultimate reality. Yet, as I have argued, the truth value of the fourfold task (and the beliefs and theories which support it) is also due to its correspondence with the way things are, as we currently experience and understand this reality. That is why they are small t ‘truths’.

So, in terms of the fourfold task, it’s not a matter of ‘tasks’ versus ‘truths’ but of ‘tasks’ and ‘truths’. There is in fact a strong  connection between the pragmatic view that the truth value of the fourfold task resides in its facilitating human flourishing and the notion that the fourfold task is true because it corresponds with the way things are. If the fourfold task works in a pragmatic way, it is because the beliefs and perspectives underlying it are true; they correspond with what exists in the natural and social worlds.

When we engage in the fourfold task, we are not just thinking, speaking, and acting in certain ways in performance of the task. We do so because we have certain views about ourselves and the world which we believe to be valuable and important ‘truths’; and those truths are borne out by our experiences. The difference between this secular approach and traditional Buddhism is that our focus is human flourishing in this world, not the attainment of permanent release from suffering, and that we understand these truths to be conditional and provisional. We engage in the fourfold task with a deep commitment to our beliefs – which we believe to be true – but also with a sense of intellectual humility and a willingness to embrace uncertainty. The secular dharmic path challenges us to assess constantly both our ‘tasks’ and the ‘truths’ on which they are based.


[1] While the claim of each lineage to possess the truth, i.e., knowledge of an ultimate reality, is pervasive in Buddhism, there are important exceptions. In a comment on an earlier draft of this article Karsten Struhl noted that two prominent philosophical schools within Mahayana Buddhism, Madhyamaka and Yogacara, reject the dualism inherent in the standard version of the correspondence theory of truth.

[2] Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age,  Yale University Press, p.149.

[3] In an article in  the Fall 2017 issue of Tricycle magazine Stephen discussed the Four Noble Truths with his fellow guiding teachers at Bodhi College, Akincano Mark Weber and Christina Feldman. Stephen’s sharp separation between truths and tasks is evident in the following:

I have a problem with using the word “truth” at all for what’s usually translated as “the four noble truths.” We’d be much better off if we abandoned that language. As soon as we bring up this notion of truth, we’ve framed everything within the idea that there is some reality we have to understand: truths are things that you understand or you don’t understand. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha is trying to do here. He’s actually asking us to embrace suffering; he’s asking us to let go of craving; he’s asking us to see the stopping of craving; and he’s asking us to cultivate a way of life, which is the way it’s explained in his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma”). And you can say all of that without any reference to the word “truth” at all.

….. as long as you’re using the word “truth,” you’re going to be just a whisker away from having a dogmatic view. If we take, for example, the second noble truth as it is usually translated—that “craving is the origin of suffering”—to me that is a metaphysical statement. You’re making a very generalized claim about the nature of reality, and so immediately people get drawn into the discussion: Well, is that really true? What about this? What about that? And down you go into the rabbit hole of theology. Whereas if you frame it as a task, the challenge is: how do I let go of craving? Then you are setting up a whole different doorway to the thoughts and the discussions that follow. Your discussion inevitably will be pragmatic. It won’t be, “Is this true? Is this false? Is this right? Is this wrong?” but, “How do you get it done?”

[4] Dewey made this argument in a 1941 essay called ‘’Propositions, warranted assertibility, and truth’ in The essential Dewey, Vol. 2, Ethics, logic, psychology, edited by L. Hickman and T. Alexander, pp. 201-212.

[5]  From the Plum Village website – https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-14-mindfulness-trainings/ Thanks to Karsten Struhl for pointing out this element of Thich Nhat Hahn’s mindfulness trainings.


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COMMENTS

5 Replies to “Reexamining ‘truths’ and ‘tasks’ in secular Buddhism”

Geoff Finckh

“The Buddha’s rejection of metaphysical starting points – all those ‘revealed’ truth-claims and certitudes – is clear. ”

https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/the-view-from-somewhere/

So we can eschew all “objective truth telling” …. apart from this truth claim, of course…

… and Stephen Batchelor says we can avoid ontology because ” the Buddha wasn’t an ontologist”…

https://dharmaseed.org/talks/player/44318.html

Problem solved!

….. I think SB still has a way to go to developing a clear philosophical position beyond a grab bag of “post-metaphysical” views (certain classical -incidentally metaphysical- Greek Stoics), phenomenology, existentialism and psychoanalysis … with a standard left-of-centre political program) added on without connection ….

https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/a-review-of-winton-higginss-revamp-writings-on-secular-buddhism/

Cheers

Geoff Finckh

…… Neitzsche, Heidegger and Freud were hardly socialists…..

Geoff Finckh

…. BTW … David Bentley Hart is a US Christian …. and he’s a socialist…. not an evangelical Republican… apparntly they exist… can you believe it!

Which raises an interesting thought… perhaps he’s more relevant to Winton’s socialist project (a la Hagglund in his Revamp book) … than Nietzsche, Heidegger or Freud … with their dubious political leanings ….. how ironic is that!!

Geoff Finckh

Rather than just swalIowing clearly anti-Christian bias in your contributors (eg Dalai Lama is good when he talks about kindness, even though he is just as metaphysical as any Christian… but nothing positive is ever said about Christian kindness …https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/kindness/)

… I suggest Secular Buddhists carefully consider the reservations of a post-Christian culture, as presented by thoughtful scholars, such as David Bentley Hart…

https://www.publicchristianity.org/on-post-christian-culture/?_sf_s=david+bentley+hart&_sft_media=audio,video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ua2bSSO1iV8&t=3606s

And a more balanced account of Christianity’s influence on Western culture (from a non-Christian) … check out Tom Holland ….

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-03/dominion-tom-holland-christianity-shaping-western-mind/11663018

“From the most ardent believer through to those who’ve never darkened the door of a church, it would do us well to know how we arrived here, and confess that we all use the past with confirmation bias.”

… Just thought you might be wondering what the world beyond SB is thinking…

Cheers

bobknab

* symphonic
***************

Discard
the rapper
of the mind

Trandsend
all concepts
space and time –

Truth
horizons constant change
when approached
recedes again –

Love
sings the bird
her morning song –

Tours
the night
symphonic moon –

Harmony is
wisdom’s
art –

Bows
the universe
to a silent heart –

*******************

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