Self-Sayings of a (Sometimes) Secular Monk: Part II – Dharma-Specific General Principles

June 14, 2024

This post presents Part II of a three-part article SBN is publishing in three installments. The introduction is repeated here from the first installment to orient readers to the piece as a whole – if you have already read Part I (with this intro and  ‘Self-Sayings’ #s 1 to 9), you can skip over this. If you’d like to take the article from the top, you’ll find the first installment here. Part III and a brief conclusion will appear next week.

Introduction to Part I

How does a secular Buddhist monk approach the dharma? And what makes one a secular Buddhist monk anyway—and an intermittent one at that? These questions have the same answer: one pursues a set of principles like the ones below. And by turns, one lets them go.

The principles below are provisional. I’m calling them “principles” but they function more as self-instructions or reminders, phrases I whisper to myself as I navigate the choices and judgments that the dharma (in all of the many meanings of the word mentioned in note 1) presents. I discover, amend, and discard them as I proceed. For this and other reasons, what you’re reading is a work in progress—a draft—likely to be revised or replaced before too long.

The principles below both reflect and constitute my approach to the dharma (all senses). Insofar as dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) is itself a kind of approach to dharma (all phenomena; how to live), these principles represent a bootstrap process. They both grow out of and guide my personal, idiosyncratic dharma journey to and through secular Buddhist monkhood.

I offer some of these principles in imperative form, some as declarative statements. I thought I might number and order them hierarchically, but they have proven too unruly. In the end I arranged them roughly—general to specific, epistemological to ethical—in three groups, but the groups overlap and at times intermingle:

  • I. General Dharma Principles—for approaching the dharma in its sense of “all phenomena” or “nature” (including the human world);
  • II. Dharma-Specific General Principles—for understanding a subset of dharmas (phenomena) that merits special attention from Buddhist dharma practitioners: Buddhist texts, teachings, and practices;
  • III. Dharma Principles For Approaching the Dharma—for guidance in approaching the dharmas of the second group (Buddhist texts, teachings, practices) in contemporary contexts of study and practice.

“You” in these principles is always me, Bhikkhu Santi. But we all seem to need—or simply, to have, to operate with—such givens and guidelines, if (again) intermittently. They’re our assumptions, examined or not. We’re capable of bringing them forward and developing them as they develop us. Chosen and held wisely, such principles can lead us through and beyond whatever rigid certainties, identities, and outlooks they may themselves circumscribe. May these self-sayings be useful to you in the course of your version of this process, though you may never visit the monk segment of the dharma path that I’ve been following.

10. Own your WEIRDness.1

The dharmas of the texts and teachings emerged from traditional, non-WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) cultures. To ignore the context of the traditional psychology that produced these dharmas—relative to our contemporary WEIRD psychology2—is to distort their meaning and purpose.

It's like you’re standing by a pond gazing down at a fish in its surround of water. If you don’t realize that the water refracts the fish’s image (that is, more than the air), you’ll think the fish is floating a foot above its actual location. (It’s the same in reverse for the fish looking up at you.) You have to account for differences between your WEIRD and the ancients’ traditional viewpoints.

Not doing so may lead you to regard the texts and teachings as products of some prescient proto-WEIRD outlook. This is the ‘Buddha as First Scientist’ reading. It typically entails dismissing as inauthentic or vestigial whatever doesn’t support your favored modernist reading. It reduces the texts and teachings to affirmations of what you already know and believe.

Alternatively, failing to account for the WEIRD/non-WEIRD gap may lead you to accept the traditional perspective uncritically. But because you’re a WEIRDo, you’ll do so with a rigidity, absolutism, and egotism foreign to traditional psychology. True to your WEIRD penchant for consistency, you may extend this to a broader repudiation of your modern viewpoint and values. In communities that encourage such an embrace of tradition, it’s often marked by a strong dose of convert zeal, and accompanied by vigilant ideological policing of oneself and others.

Either way, the WEIRD preoccupation with consistency—which WEIRDOs assume to be natural, universal, and correct—can lead to all manner of improbable mental gymnastics aimed at reconciling inconsistent texts, ideas, practices, and feelings.

However, the texts and teachings were likely not created with consistency in mind. They aren’t even likely to have originated from a single source. To the extent that the historical Buddha was their main source, he’s frequently represented in the texts as prioritizing the situational needs of his ‘hearers’ over the consistency of his teachings. (See 15 and 27 for more on consistency and interpretation.)

Anyway, your assumption that it’s your job to figure out the meaning of the texts for yourself—and that doing so will reveal the best way to walk the path for you—epitomizes WEIRDo individualism. The traditional assumption is that the community, through its authorities, provides the meaning and guides us on the path. On the other hand, see (26).

In short, don’t pretend the ancients were WEIRD as you approach the dharma. And don’t pretend that you are not.

11. The dharma is not always the dharma.

‘The sacred texts of Buddhism’ are not identical to ‘the spiritual teachings of the Buddha’ if the latter must be interpreted based on these and other sources (15). Neither texts nor teachings are identical to the way things are, any more than textbooks and classes are synonymous with the world they purport to teach us about.

Notice when spiritual teachers or writers conflate, confuse, or swap different meanings of dharma, especially the ones cited in the paragraph above. Teachers of a fundamentalist stripe will often use dharma to mean both the teachings of the Buddha and the way things are at once. Parse the assumptions, interpretations, or views at play in such uses of the term. Some monastic translators render dharma simply as ‘Truth’—a meaning that the word doesn’t denote in canonical Pali (with or without the capital T), notwithstanding its many other meanings (n.1).

Stay clear especially about which dharma—which referent of dharma—you are trying to understand. It’s easy to slide from your spiritual purpose onto mastering Buddhists texts, teachings, and practices as an end in itself. Let these dharmas play a supporting role, but stay focused on the dharmas of how things are and of how to live.

12. The dharma is not just the dharma.

Ignorance did not mean one thing in the Buddha’s time and another today. The ancient word avijjā (usually translated ‘ignorance’; more literally, ‘without knowledge or vision, not knowing’) closely overlaps the word ignoranc” as English speakers use it today. The canonical Buddha identified avijjā as the root of suffering, and the eradication of avijjā as liberation.

Human knowledge of nature has developed since the Buddha’s time. Not all the knowledge that we have developed serves the purposes of liberation (any more than all human knowledge did in the Buddha’s day). But much of what we’ve learned is useful. Science, philosophy, history, and many other fields of knowledge can help to illuminate the dharma (the way things are; how to live). Nowhere did the canonical Buddha teach that we should limit our learning to the science and culture of ancient India.

Don’t limit your learning exclusively to Buddhist texts, teachings, practices, and traditions. That said, doing so may nonetheless be highly beneficial for a time, and in retrospect.

13. The dharma provides the conceptual tools for understanding the dharma.

It’s close to tautology to say that the dharma (natural law) applies to all dharmas (phenomena; nature). It’s also uncontroversial to say that the dharma (Buddhist texts and teachings) are themselves dharmas (phenomena). It follows that the dharma (natural law) applies specifically to these dharmas (the texts and the teachings) along with all the rest.

We should understand the texts and teachings in light of the dharma (natural law) both as it has marked these dharmas, and mysteriously, as these dharmas themselves teach.3 For instance, we should note that the teaching of the tilakkhana (three marks of existence) propounded in these dharmas—that all things are characterized by anicca (impermanence, transience), anattā (no self or soul; no fixed, immutable essence), and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, suffering)—applies to the texts and teachings themselves. To the extent that this teaching does apply, it indicates that these dharmas (texts and teachings) are:

  • incomplete and imperfect. The lacunae, glitches,, and inconsistencies apparent in the texts are all consistent with this, and therefore do not need to be interpreted or explained away.
  • not wholly satisfactory. Accordingly, we struggle with texts and teachings (typically, by denying or rationalizing their imperfections) as we do with any dharmas from which we want something.
  • have no defining, essential core (for instance, no shortlist of views or practices that define “Buddhism” or constitute its essence). Buddhism accommodates internal diversity (16).

The texts and teachings offer similarly self-applicable dharmas (ethical guidance) on how we should relate to texts, teachings, and teachers. Texts like the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) and the Canki Sutta (MN 95) make clear that the proper relationship of student to text, teaching, and teacher is not one of blind belief and unquestioning acceptance, but rather of creative and critical intelligence. This relationship grounds and sustains practice and development. Questioning and debate play a key role in this process; something like Socratic dialogue is the canonical Buddha’s go-to mode of instruction in numerous discourses.

Other doctrines represented in the texts—such as dependent origination, the doctrine of karma, and the middle way—hold similarly potent implications when thus applied reflexively.

14. The dharma formed naturally.

Given what we mean by ‘laws of nature’, it’s also close to tautology to say that the dharma (laws of nature) then—in ancient times—are the same as the dharma (laws of nature) now. If we accept that the texts and teachings are themselves dharmas (phenomena), it follows that the same natural laws that apply to phenomena now applied to these particular dharmas then, and have applied to them throughout their history.4

Naturalism—the viewpoint afforded by the natural and social sciences—provides the most plausible account of the history of the texts and teachings. It’s not necessary to know this history in precise detail. It’s enough to recognize that a natural history of these dharmas offers a more plausible explanation of them than a supernatural one.

What does a plausible natural history if the texts look like? Setting aside the historicity of the Buddha, let’s assume that during the earliest Buddhist period, a core of Buddhist oral teachings were in circulation. Over decades or centuries, these various teachings became increasingly fixed and codified. The resulting oral texts were transmitted by reciters over additional centuries. They were eventually written down and compiled in collections, with variants branching off and developing independently in geographically remote cultures. Until the age of print—across millennia—they were transmitted via hand-copied texts, mainly by scholar-monks in their respective societies.

Throughout their transmission history, the texts were subject to a shifting interplay of forces. Some of these forces—such as respect for tradition and reverence for the teachings—would have acted to preserve the texts, safeguarding them from change.

Other forces would have worked to introduce changes in the texts. Likely sources of textual change (whether we view it as corruption or cultural-evolutionary variation) include historically-contingent ideological, social, and political imperatives like upsurges of patriarchy or authoritarianism in a given culture; accidents and natural disasters; and the human suppositions, imaginings, biases, and errors of transmitters. Once changes were introduced into the fixed texts, conservative forces would thereafter have worked to preserve them as original. If we accept that the texts and teachings developed in this way—which is to say, naturally—we’ll recognize along with secular academic scholars that:

  • the canonical texts represent multiple viewpoints and voices across multiple eras. Some of these voices reflect ideas developed from other, preceding ones that are also represented. Some reflect debates between schools. Some represent distinct traditions and individuals;
  • the texts that have come down to us include errors, misunderstandings, interpolations, reframings, and elisions—at scales ranging from individual words to entire discourses.

(For more on the evolution of the teachings, see 27.)

In contrast to many sacred texts, those of the Pali Canon do not generally represent themselves as divinely authored or authorized. The words of the Buddha and his great disciples are usually presented as reported speech (‘thus have I heard’) by hearers of unspecified proximity to the speakers of the discourses they report. From sutta to sutta, the texts often offer this reported speech in multiple, variant forms from different witnesses’ perspectives.

From the viewpoint of secular philological study, words and ideas in these texts are often ascribed to the Buddha that seem unlikely to have been his, and key narratives are marred by continuity errors reflecting their likely ahistoricity.

None of this obviates the profound wisdom of the dharma. Rather, It enables access to this wisdom where supernaturalism hinders it. It invites us to differentiate between the dharma (the way things are) and the dharmas (ideas) that represent it as these ideas have come down through the dharma (texts and teachings).

15. The dharma must be interpreted.

The texts of the Pali Canon do not generally represent themselves as comprehensive, consistent, or self-authorizing. On the contrary, they include explicit guidance on how they should themselves be interpreted. It’s hard not to conclude both from this and from the naturalistic dharma the texts expound (13, 14) that they must be interpreted, as opposed to taken as literal truth. Hence, textual literalism—fundamentalism—is inconsistent with the dharma, however some Buddhist traditions and teachers may resort to it.

How should the texts and teachings be interpreted, then? Theravada tradition points to several canonical passages, known as the ‘Great Standards’, that authorize consistency as the correct interpretive priority. The idea is that interpretation of any given dharma (passage or idea) is more or less correct and reliable to the degree that it accords with the dharma (texts and teachings) as a whole.

However, this too is an interpretation, one that is itself inconsistent with (13) and (14). The Buddha is often represented as tailoring sometimes narrow, variant facets of the dharma—not always consistent with one another—to the particular needs of his various, diverse audiences. (Ajahn Chah succinctly explained the logic of this in explaining his own approach to teaching: ‘If I see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right side of the road, I call out, “Go left, go left!” Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, “Go right, go right!”’)

(For more on interpretation and the Great Standards, see 28.)

16. Buddhism is not one thing.

Buddhism is internally diverse.5 It encompasses many elements, and comes in many flavors: the various Buddhist traditions evolved—and continue to evolve—to meet the needs of the societies and cultures in which they are embedded.

No one Buddhist tradition is more or less essentially Buddhist than the others. Buddhist traditions trace their origins to the same source, and in this sense, they are equally ancient, equally original. Nonetheless, each tends to highlight what distinguishes it (typically, the perspective of the innovative teacher or school who inaugurated the tradition) even as it considers itself as the preserver or restorer of what is essential in the dharma (teachings of the Buddha). 

The respective dharmas of the traditions are not always overlapping or even commensurable. Still, all are Buddhist in tracing their descent to the Buddha, whether they understand him as a historical figure; an ahistorical, godlike being; or as a principle of awareness, wisdom, or compassion. Sectarianism—as an expression of the view that ‘my way is right; all other ways are wrong’ (a stock phrase connected in the early texts with ‘wrong view’ )—is contrary to the dharma. Buddhisms that reject or denigrate the others misrepresent the dharma in this regard, but are still Buddhism.

Typically, even exclusivist forms of Buddhism teach some version of no-self/emptiness, according to which dharmas (phenomena) have no fixed, immutable essence (13). This contradicts the notion of an essential core of ideas and practices that demarcate orthodoxy from heterodoxy, rendering exclusivist Buddhisms incoherent.

17. Look to the dharma as a source of ideas and practices, not authority.

We can regard the dharma (texts and teachings) as a kind of treasure map to guide us along a sometimes faint path that leads to priceless riches of peace and understanding. After passing through so many hands, though— through so many languages and textual forms, so many traditions, so many civilizations—this map has gotten stained, mildewed, and rat-chewn. In other words, natural processes of change (14, 27) have had ample time to leave their marks.

You have to handle this map carefully or it will come apart in your hands. Following it correctly will require patient guesswork, backtracking, and probably some bushwhacking. Nonetheless, the map proves an indispensable aid to following the path.

1 As discussed in the definition of ‘secular’ in n.1.

2 ‘WEIRD psychology’ refers to Heinrich’s argument that WEIRD societies instill in their members what he calls the individualism complex. To varying degrees, that’s all of us—everyone reading this—since literacy is a marker and shaper of WEIRDo’s. Few cultures on Earth remain apart from modernity, so the individualism complex has become the air we breath (or the water we swim in). Relative to people from more intact traditional cultures, we WIERDo’s tend to…

  • identify ourselves by personal attributes and accomplishments rather than relationships and group memberships;
  • think analytically rather than holistically;
  • value self-consistency over situation-appropriateness in reasoning and ethics;
  • orient our work and social lives around voluntary rather than kinship-based associations;
  • trust others based on impersonal, imagined communities rather than personal relationships of kinship and tribe;
  • value autonomy and self-expression over adherence to norms and social harmony.

People with minds formed mainly in traditional cultures tend in the opposite directions. However, note that these oppositions define spectra, not all-or-nothing binaries. A mix of intermediate values along these scales describes each of us, but WEIRDO’s tend more towards the individualism complex ends of these spectra than do people from traditional cultures.

3 This is not an original idea. Richard Gombrich takes it as a central thesis in his How Buddhism Began (subtitle, ‘The Conditioned Genesis [Dependent Origination] of the Early Teachings’. Paul Williams raises it in the introduction to his Mahayana Buddhism. Irrespective of the brilliance of these studies, it’s not an especially inventive idea either, given the consistency orientation of many of us WEIRDo’s. That said, it’s perhaps a counter-intuitive (and potentially offensive) idea from a traditional standpoint.

4 The possibility of natural laws evolving—a topic in modern physics—is irrelevant in this context.

5 This is a basic tenet of religious studies as an academic field, but more to the point, it is a corollary of anattā (‘no-self or -soul’ and its related concept of emptiness, as mentioned in 14).

Bhikkhu Santi is a monk in the Thai forest tradition, a meditation-centered branch of Theravada Buddhism. He teaches meditation and writes on the intersections of Buddhism, modernity, personal life, and other spiritual themes. Bhikkhu Santi recently appeared in a public conversation with Stephen Batchelor, entitled ‘Secular Buddhism and the Timeless’, co-sponsored by SBN and posted here. Currently based in Western Massachusetts, Bhikkhu Santi lives on freewill offerings with no fixed abode. More at



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One Reply to “Self-Sayings of a (Sometimes) Secular Monk: Part II – Dharma-Specific General Principles”

David Patten

Very good, with lots to reflect on — particularly those things which I have never before seen or heard expressed/explained so directly. Thanks.

For the moment, is Buddhism a reference point (by which something is judged) or a touchstone (by which something is recognised)? Or both, perhaps?

And is it in this ‘play’ between judging and/or recognising that the ‘rat-chewn treasure-map’ accommodates or bends with “the way things are; how to live” and “is not one thing?”

As you say, “It invites us to differentiate between the dharma (the way things are) and the dharmas (ideas) that represent it as these ideas have come down through the dharma (texts and teachings).”

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