Response to Mike Slott’s ‘Reexamining “truths” and “tasks” in secular Buddhism’

November 9, 2021

As an admirer of John Dewey and his pragmatist heirs, I agree with a number of the epistemological points that Mike makes in his article. But I’m not sure they get at Stephen Batchelor’s ‘dichotomous’ suggestion that dharma practitioners replace a commitment to the four noble truths with one to the four main tasks. The suggestion in question arises out of a pre-existing debate about how we understand the Buddha’s first discourse.  In the early 1960s,  the scholar-monk Ñāṇavīra Thera suggested that ‘the four’ actually amounted (in his words) to  ‘imperatives, they call for action (like the bottle in Alice in Wonderland labelled  ‘Drink Me!’).’[1] Independently, the Pali expert KR Norman opined on philological grounds that the term ‘noble truth’ was a later addition to the text. Long before Stephen Batchelor came along, then, the noble truths were already under a cloud, either as misinterpretations or apocrypha.

We can understand why the noble truths had to be launched ex post facto in the drive to reframe the dharma as a religion. Metaphysical truth-claims (revelations from on high, not otherwise available) are a religion’s stock in trade. They deliver certitude to the perplexed, but usually at the expense of practicality.  Whereas the first task of the dharma, crudely paraphrased, says: ‘A human life is an intractably tough gig – deal with it!’, the noble-truth version merely notes that ‘there is suffering.’ That is a commonplace in all religions I’m aware of. Compare the more poetic Anglican version in The book of common prayer, to be pronounced by the priest just before a corpse is lowered into the grave: ‘Man that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up as a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’

Statements like this constitute the first step in the religious hard sell. Step two is the explanation for our misery. For Christians it’s because we’re all born ‘sinners’; for conventional Buddhists it’s because we all ‘crave’ (intransitive). How useful (let alone plausible) are ‘truths’ like these?  We’re embodied humans, not angels. If we didn’t ‘crave’ food, drink, sex and shelter, then we wouldn’t be here at all. If we didn’t seek intimate and other warm connections with each other, as well as insights into how our world works, stimulation of our higher senses, and better ways to live, then we wouldn’t lead meaningful human lives.

But recitation of such ‘truths’ prepares the ground for step three – the religious payoff: redemption! Because the human world is such a vale of tears, the solution (one engineered by a professional priestly class) lies in becoming another sort of being altogether: a post-human or superhuman one, like an angel or an arahant (an irreversibly and fully enlightened being). No more suffering; no more sinning; no more craving. But alas, no more life as we know it either.

The secular iteration of the dharma feeds into a starkly divergent project, a task-based ethical path. In his first discourse the Buddha specifies the difficulties (birth, ageing, sickness, death, etc.) we’ll all encounter in this life. First task: Learn the list! Identify and probe these rough patches in your life as they unfold! Understand them; integrate them, as you tread the path and grow. This way you become a deeper, wiser, more spacious human being, so that (second task) you don’t react in ways that make matters worse.  Instead, let ethics and understanding lead from the front. Task 3: relish the striking calm, freedom and lucidity that arise when you get task 2 right. That illumination gives you the faith to cultivate the most fulfilling way of life you can – the eightfold path (task 4). You’re not seeking redemption in the abandonment of your humanity, but rather fully occupying the human estate.

‘Faith’ (saddha) is a key word here. (Thank you, Martin Hägglund, for developing the idea of ‘secular faith’!)[2] The secular dharmic path is not driven by belief in abstract metaphysical ‘truths’, but rather by a commitment to the ethical values of the dharma, and its vision for full human flourishing – for making the  most of this risky but invaluable human life.

So I don’t agree that ‘Stephen has set up a dichotomy between truths and tasks for dharma practitioners,’ as Mike puts it. A lot more than a conceptual dichotomy is in play here. ‘Truths’ and ‘tasks’ stand for divergent paths and responses to the human condition. It’s not an epistemological issue about the status of truth – it’s an existential one about how we should live and practise. I’m afraid dharma practitioners do have to choose: they can’t wish-wash over the truths/tasks distinction.

[1] Clearing the path: writings of Ñāṇavīra Thera (1960-1965), Volume II (2nd edition. Dehiwala: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 2007),  pp. 106-107).

[2] This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom (NY: Anchor Books, 2020).



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