#8 May 2020
Welcome to our May 2020 newsletter.
This month’s glossary item is the FOUR [GREAT] TASKS and we introduce new articles on the basics of secular Buddhism and Bodhi College’s course on the Secular Dharma. We also want to know why you became a secular Buddhist and what you think of SBN’s guidelines for contributors and readers’ comments. Our feature article is an excerpt from Stephen Batchelor’s new book, The Art of Solitude.
An introduction to secular Buddhism
For those who are curious about or interested in secular Buddhism and want to learn about this relatively new trend within Buddhism, check out an article on our website which provides a helpful starting point for exploring a secular approach to the dharma.
Bodhi College’s Secular Dharma course: applications are now being accepted
Stephen and Martine Batchelor will be teaching this course, whose purpose is to enable students to recover and integrate the values, philosophy and ethics of the dharma into their lives so that they become more autonomous in their understanding and practice. The course seeks to create a peer-learning environment that will balance critical enquiry, open-minded discussion, contemplative reflection and practical application of what is taught.
Why did you become a secular Buddhist?
The Secular Buddhist Network website is starting a blog post on Our diverse paths to secular Buddhism. We’re looking for brief accounts, from 100 to 500 words, of what led you to become interested in and develop a secular approach to the dharma. Click here to send us your personal account.
Connect with Secular Buddhists worldwide
If you have a sangha, centre, meditation group, resource or website, or are an individual who would like to connect with other secular Buddhists, fill out our simple form and we can add you to our listing of secular Buddhist groups and individuals.
We’ve also developed an interactive map as a visual aid to encourage communication and also make it easy to see where we might find others travelling the same spiritual path.
SBN guidelines for contributors and readers’ comments
The aim of the Secular Buddhist Network website is to foster dialogue and a compassionate, critical examination of issues related to secular dharma, while strengthening the bonds of community and collective efforts among secular Buddhists. We are not a sangha nor are we attempting to create a membership organization with a uniform set of beliefs and practices. The guidelines for contributors to the website and readers’ comments are consistent with our approach and our intention to play a constructive role in the development of a secular approach to the dharma.
Buddhist terms from a secular perspective
Four [Great] Tasks
Conventional ‘Buddhism’ asserts that the Buddha, in his very first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana sutta, announced the Four Noble Truths (note the initial capital letters):
… Life is suffering;
… Craving is the cause of suffering;
… The end of suffering is attainable; and
… The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering.
These metaphysical propositions became the stock-in-trade of a Buddhism that has come to be understood as a religion rather than as an ethical practice.
A careful examination of the first teaching doesn’t support this conventional reading of the teaching. Among the problems associated with this reading is the fact that Gotama taught that life was not just suffering but also joy and the potential to awaken.
Contemporary scholarship informs us that the original text in fact makes no metaphysical assertions at all. Rather, it sets out four central tasks which orient dharma practice as a whole and which constitute the core of Gotama’s teaching. These tasks are:
1. Embrace life
In other words, the inevitable difficulties all humans face (i.e. the human condition).
2. Let go of greed, hatred and delusion – i.e. instinctive reactivity
When we fail to embrace dukkha, we indulge in reactivity. We pine for a set of conditions other than those which actually confront us, and this misstep in turn leads to further suffering and turbulence.
3. Stop and savour the ceasing of reactivity
When the mind is completely free of greed, hatred and delusion, however momentarily, we experience awakening, which not only clarifies our vision dramatically, but also inspires us to commit to the fourth and final task:
4. Act, cultivating the eightfold path
The eight aspects of this path call on us to overhaul our ‘view’ (worldview, or fundamental working assumptions) in line with dharmic insights, our intentions, our communications with others, our everyday ethics, our choice and approach to work, the energy we put into our spiritual practice, our sensitivity and awareness to what is happening to and around us, and our mental integration.
A positive feedback loop rather than a linear progression, the eightfold path is a comprehensive formula for living more fully – more reflectively and sanely – and for whole-of-life spiritual growth.
– You can read the complete glossary here:
Integrating contemplative life into practice
– by Stephen Batchelor
In the end, the only thing that really matters for me as a meditator is how well or badly I respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the situation at hand. If my contemplative practice fails to contribute to my flourishing as a person in my relationships with others, then I have to question the purpose of spending months and years practicing it. Every moment in life offers the chance to start afresh. I can embrace what is before me, let go of what holds me back, then speak or act in a way that is not determined by my fears, attachments, or egotistic conceits. Although I frequently fail in my attempts to live in this way, I am convinced that mindfulness, collectedness, and questioning are crucial to my ability to do so.
I likewise do not doubt that by training oneself in contemplative disciplines one can achieve non-ordinary states of mind that might sound incredible for those unfamiliar with these things. When meditation teacher Leigh Brasington describes dwelling for long periods of time in the jhānas and immaterial absorptions, I have no reason to disbelieve him. fMRI scans of Leigh’s brain in meditation have shown different areas lighting up as he enters different jhānic states. Yet I suspect that the ability to access such altered forms of consciousness is due to a range of factors other than formal training. Not only are some people more highly motivated to achieve such states, they may be more temperamentally and perhaps neuro-biologically suited than others to enter them.
“We had the experience,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Dry Salvages,” “but missed the meaning.” The meaning of contemplation must not be confused with the experience of contemplation. To be able to dwell in a deeply focused, ecstatic, and clear state of mind is in itself meaningless. You can train and develop your spiritual muscles to an exceptional degree without necessarily flourishing much as a person. Your meditation is meaningful to the extent that it contributes to your becoming the kind of person you aspire to be. And since an ethical vision is integral to your life as a whole, it will inform, suffuse, and transform your contemplative practice.
To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.
– you can find the complete article here: