Secular Buddhism and the western search for meaning

This talk was given to One Mindful Breath, Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand in February 2019.

Since the late nineteenth century Buddhism has been promoted in the west in various different guises – as an alternative, ‘scientific’ religion; as an alternative to religion; as a psychotherapy; and as a practical philosophy in the ancient Greek sense of a set of ideas to actually live by. It has been promoted in this way on both sides of what we might now think of as a religious/secular divide.

Many early western adopters and adapters followed the logic of the late 19th-century biologist Thomas Huxley. He had lots of close Christian friends but he couldn’t swallow their beliefs. At the same time he wanted to be like them and ‘have a tail like all the other foxes’, so he invented agnosticism as his own quasi-‘faith’.

That motivation has drawn many westerners to Buddhism up to the present time. Encouraged by western ‘orientalism’ in particular, they’ve adopted traditional religious forms of Buddhism which offer revealed ultimate truths; venerable institutions; bracing rituals and ecstatic experiences – ‘religious experiences’; and practices that promise individual salvation, just like the west’s own dominant religion.

Both Christianity and Asian Buddhisms provide answers to the two basic and interdependent questions every human being must answer in practice, willy nilly:

  • How should I live?
  • What sort of person should I become?

Consciously posing these two questions throughout our lives is often referred to as the search for meaning.

We should note the strong ethical element in these questions, one that presupposes an inner life – a sensitivity and attention to our innermost experiences. This requirement for a life well lived goes back to the ancient Egyptians and their injunction – Know thyself!

The injunction has reverberated down through the millennia. It appears carved in stone at the portal to the oracle in Delphi. Early Christianity adopted it. It’s endemic to Buddhism. And so on, to its modern apotheosis in secular philosophy and psychoanalysis.

We’ll be returning to this vital requirement in Saturday’s workshop.

Religious and secular searches for meaning

Religion as such never enjoyed a monopoly on the search for meaning – the claims of its messianic practitioners notwithstanding. Ancient Greek thinkers were posing questions like the two just mentioned in essentially non-religious terms that didn’t rely on revelation and blind faith.

The Greeks kicked around these questions in an open-ended way. They examined the questions, and themselves. As one of them, Socrates, put it: the un-examined life is not worth living. It’s not worthy of a human being. From the European Enlightenment to the present day, major western thinkers have tended to turn away from religious doctrine and towards something like the open-ended, inquiring and secular approach of Socrates & co.

We can trace the history of Buddhism as wandering back and forth across this religious/secular dividing line, right up to its present-day development in the western world. Stephen Batchelor’s work over the last quarter-century builds a strong case for seeing the Buddha’s own approach to the search for meaning as open-ended, inquiring and secular, just like that of Socrates.

However, religion in ancient Indian culture had tremendous cultural prestige, such that on his death his followers gravitated across the religious/secular line to start a religion like any other – combining revealed truths (beginning with karma and rebirth, and ‘the four noble truths’); with authoritative institutions that featured hierarchy, dogma and patriarchy; ritualised practice; and the promise of individual salvation (fortunate rebirth, enlightenment, the end of suffering) to the compliant.

Many expressions of Asian Buddhisms and their western transplants still rely on these features today. For many practising Buddhists, their adherence stands or falls on the promise of a fortunate rebirth, and fear of its opposite.

But as the Buddha’s tradition spread out and away from India, the religious impulse could falter, especially in host societies with developed cultures and weaker religious institutions. The main case in point is early Chinese Buddhism which started two millennia ago, and its Korean and Japanese offshoots. Instead of dogma, scepticism (‘great doubt’) found favour, as did inquiry and experimentation with forms of practice. The focus fell on living this very life intelligently and with maximum awareness, not banking on post-mortem bliss.

Enter secular Buddhism

In the last 70 years the foundations of secular Buddhism have been laid by two westerners who separately delved into the Buddha’s own teaching (as preserved in the Pali canon, before later commentaries masked it and religified it). The latter of the two also took inspiration from the sceptical east-Asian tradition. In the light of the above trajectory, these origins appear natural, as does the border-hopping back across the religious/secular demarcation line.

The first of these founders was a British military-intelligence officer from world war two, Harold Musson, who in Sri Lanka became the senior Theravādin monk Ñāṇavīra Thera (1920–65). He made himself unpopular in orthodox circles by pointing out the enormous gap between the Buddha’s own teaching and the Theravāda school’s orthodox commentaries – not least as they touch on the doctrine of the ‘four noble truths’. This doctrine displaces the Buddha’s four central injunctions that we find set out in his first discourse.

These injunctions, Ñāṇavīra showed, come unencumbered with metaphysical truth-claims, and can thus usefully be compared to the injunction on the label Alice read on the bottle she found when she fell down the rabbit hole – it just said: ‘Drink me!’ Or: Just do it! As if that wasn’t enough, he declared ignorance of the commentaries to be a positive advantage for any serious dharma practitioner intent on applying the injunctions in question. In effect, he championed Buddhism as a practical philosophy on the Greek model.

Ñāṇavīra exercised a seminal influence on the second major founder of secular Buddhism, whom I mentioned earlier: Stephen Batchelor (b.1953), whose work brings us together this evening. Ordaining as a Tibetan monk as a young man, Batchelor later moved to a monastery in Korea where he trained in the great-doubting Sŏn tradition which aligns with Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen. So both these practitioners are heirs to Buddhism in its ancient secular iterations.

But that is not all Ñāṇavīra and Batchelor have in common. Both draw on post-metaphysical currents in western philosophy since Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). In other words – to summarise brutally – they eschew any notion of ultimate truths hiding behind (and contradicting) direct experience. There is no ultimate reality that religious and other metaphysical truth claims can correspond to. Rather, truth refers to ethical, practical outcomes. A true statement is one that points the way to human flourishing through skilful ethical practice.

By making this link between the early teachings of Buddhism and today’s western post-metaphysics, both these founders have provided the dharma with an expression that makes sense to many of us living in the modern west.

Purification and self-enlargement

Before concluding, I want to introduce another distinction that helps us to situate and profile secular Buddhism. The distinction itself comes from the work of a prominent member of the American pragmatist school of post-metaphysical philosophy, Richard Rorty (1931–2007), and relates to the second of the two key interdependent questions I raised at the beginning: what sort of person should I become? That is: what sort of character should I aim to foster, and how am I to go about it?

Rorty divides the various answers to this question into two antithetical strategies. The first springs from ‘the desire to purify oneself, [which] is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being’. The celibate, ascetic lifestyle of the Buddhist monastic fits this description to a tee. The payoff is transcendence to a permanent post-human, post-suffering state of grace. In traditional Buddhism, the ascetic monastic provides the template for the dharma practitioner as such.

The opposite strategy is ‘self-enlargement’ – not to be confused with narcissistic self-aggrandisement which leads straight to self-diminution. ‘The desire to enlarge oneself,’ Rorty suggests in Essays on Heidegger and others, ‘is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future…[It inspires] the life that seeks to extend its own boundaries rather than to find its centre.’ This is the aesthetic rather than ascetic strategy, and it doesn’t presuppose any post-human, post-mortem transcendence, sainthood, or state of grace. Just flourishing in this life. Secular Buddhism exemplifies this strategy, I suggest.

On Saturday, we might want to explore what this distinction means in practice – in how we live, and how we meditate. Do we enter our inner worlds in the spirit of Marie Kondo, decluttering and junking all the bits of ourselves that don’t fit the serene, pure model? Or do we embrace ‘the whole catastrophe’ of what’s going on in our hearts and minds, and gradually bring harmony and meaning to our enlarged inner lives?

Either way, of course, we’ll avoid slamming the door on the inner life as such – the great temptation of the digital age, but not peculiar to it. On Saturday we’ll go more deeply into this topic as well.



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