This month’s glossary item is Conditionality and we introduce two posts which offer new perspectives on meditation retreats and sanghas. We also ask for your feedback about this newsletter and the website. Our feature article is by Stephen Batchelor, called On freedom and nirvana.
Moving away from hierarchy and toward democratic sanghas
Developing a secular dharma which is relevant to our contemporary world requires us to engage in a serious examination of traditional models and practices of the community of practitioners – the sangha – and to be willing to experiment with new, more democratic forms.
From meditation retreats to dharma path immersives
While meditation retreats are extremely valuable, they are limited in some important respects. We need to develop more inclusive forms of intensive practice which help us cultivate each of the essential dimensions of the Eightfold Path in an integrated way.
Also known as ‘conditioned arising’, ‘dependent origination’, or simply ‘contingency’. This is the Buddha’s central philosophical idea that everything – all elements of our experience – arises dependent on past and present conditions, which are themselves in a constant state of flux.
Nothing in our experience exists in and of itself, independent of conditions, and so nothing is eternal. Everything partakes of ‘conditioned existence’, arising and passing away, always subject to change.
Seeing into conditionality contributes towards awakening to the processual, contingent, fluid, unfolding, interconnected nature of life. Including our very own lives.
The Tuwhiri Project and Secular Buddhist Network are co-sponsoring an online course to explore a secular dharma based on Stephen Batchelor’s, After Buddhism (Yale 2015), and Winton Higgins’ After Buddhism: a workbook (Tuwhiri 2018).
The course is available on an individual (self-paced) basis or by participating in the course as part of a learning cohort, with opportunities for discussion and feedback.
Well, for me freedom is a two-way street: a moment of freedom is a freedom from something, but it’s also a freedom to something. This is a distinction made by Isaiah Berlin that I’ve found very helpful. It’s not just that you’re freed from something, let’s say, attachment or anger or self-centredness, but that that freedom clears a space in which other possibilities are made available. This opens up a freedom to act in a way that is not conditioned by your anger or self-centredness. It’s from that empty space that the path unfolds in terms of your thoughts, your words and deeds, your interactions and so forth.
This is what lies at the heart of what practice is about: it’s about refining, and opening up, that inner spaciousness, that absence of reactivity. That is the ground from which one then seeks to live moment to moment. It’s not somewhere to rest and stand apart from your interactions with the world. It is an ethical space.
Nirvana for me is simply the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. The ‘unconditioned,’ as defined in the early Buddhist texts, is described in the same way: not as a transcendent state, but as the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. So ‘unconditioned’ does not mean unconditioned in some absolute sense, but simply unconditioned by greed, unconditioned by hatred, unconditioned by egoism. That is a state of ethical possibility. In other words, I can learn to live my life, as best I can, with full awareness of my shortcomings, in a way that’s not so driven by my personal likes and dislikes, not so driven by my fears and wants, but tries to respond to the world from a non-reactive, open mind.
That non-reactive mind is also the ataraxia of the Greeks. The untroubledness that Pyrrho, the founder is skepticism, sought to attain. In the longest fragment of Pyrrho he talks of a practice in which you no longer think of things as “is” or “is not,” or “both is and is not,” or “neither is or is not.” This is the quadralemma you also find in the suttas and Nāgārjuna. And if you can dwell in that state of mind, you come to what he calls aphatos, which is speechlessness, and that leads you to ataraxia, which is untroubledness. And it’s from that untroubled space that you then seek to live your life.
The Chinese idea of wu wei, “inaction,” is similar. In practice, the Buddhist nirvana, emptiness, unconditioned, all of them I think are different ways of accessing this space of freedom, which is both a freedom from and a freedom to. Otherwise freedom can become too strongly identified with an inner spiritual freedom, and risks losing sight of the fact that it is an ethical freedom as well.