Self-Sayings of a (Sometimes) Secular Monk: Part III – Dharma Principles for Approaching the Dharma

June 22, 2024

This post presents the final installment of a three-part article. Whereas the first two were more foundational and general, this installment offers more practical guidance on approaching Buddhist texts, teachings, and practice in contemporary contexts of study and practice. You don’t need to read the first two parts before delving into the strategies discussed here in Part III (principles 18-29). However, if you’d like to start from first principles,  you’ll find Part I (principles 1-9) here. Part II can be found (principles 10-17) here.  The introduction to the piece as a whole is repeated below from previous installments to orient readers.

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.

18. Don’t check your intelligence at the door.

Don’t check your intelligence at the door, specifically, of the dharma hall. Watch out for denialism, authoritarian logic, occultism, tribalism, cultishness, and in general, magical thinking. All of these appear in the dharma hall from time to time masquerading as the dharma. If you subscribe to reason in other areas of your life, subscribe to it in the dharma hall as well. Sacrificing reason or conscience anywhere undermines it everywhere.1

Suspend judgment as needed, but don’t dismiss it. Don’t make a practice of passivity, groupthink, or thought-suppression. Intelligence—your intelligence—will be required for your ongoing development. The dharma must be interpreted (15).

That said, we WEIRDo’s (10) tend to undervalue receptivity, and underdevelop our ability to suspend judgment and truly listen. Develop these capacities, but intelligently, discerningly.

19. Don’t trade your autonomy away.

The dharma comes to us through teachers of great eloquence and charisma whom we want to trust, often while we’re in the company of new friends with whom we want to agree, gathered in communities to which we want to belong. We want to believe. We want to surrender.

And indeed, we need to come to the dharma with open minds. The dharma can lead us to insights and experiences of profound subtlety and power that require us to revise our worldviews, and indeed, to revise ourselves.

But you need a compass to navigate the path of development (and—let’s keep our metaphors straight—to orient our spiritual map [17]). This can only be your own creative and critical intelligence, motivated by truth (1). You need your own compass.

Beware suggestions that you should rely on someone else’s. That you should ‘surrender’ your discernment and agency to the authority of a teacher, group, or doctrine.  You may be promised that trusting someone else’s wisdom ahead of your own will help you to let go of self—will free you from having to make judgments and decisions that you might otherwise identify with and suffer over. This misconstrues the teaching on anattā (no-self) as a prescription for self-abnegation. (This teaching points not to self-abnegation but rather to a mode of perception and being that accords with the transient, mutable, conditioned nature of the self.)

Beware suggestions that wisdom is some sort of mystical agency bestowed from without and accessible only by spontaneous intuition. It’s true that wisdom can arrive shorn of self-attribution markers—the feelings that mark an inner voice or thought as one’s own—especially during deep meditation. This does not mean that wisdom comes from somewhere or someone else, even if it feels that way (3). Rather it means that your prior assumptions about yourself fell short of what you are. Wisdom is the faculty and product of creative and critical intelligence.

20. Beware the Noble Lie.

‘Noble lie’ (sometimes ‘noble myth’) was Plato’s term for an invented narrative presented as true to the lower echelons of a society for the good of the society as a whole, and so, ostensibly, for their own good. In the dharma hall (or at the monastery), teachings that are over-simplified, embellished, taken out of context, or invented wholesale—whether intended to benefit students or not—amount to noble lies when teachers represent them as ‘the dharma’ or ‘the Buddha’s teachings’ (21).

Whole branches of contemporary Western spiritual practice comprise noble lies: dharma-related ideas cut loose from the framework of Buddhist wisdom (often with non-Buddhist, contrary-to-dharma ideas mixed in) but represented as complete teachings sufficient for full enlightenment or an otherwise happy life.

A salient example is what we might call present-momentism, the teaching that all you need to do is keep coming back to the present moment, that mindfulness (present moment awareness) frees us entirely from thoughts of the future or past (which are bad if we ‘believe’ them), and that continual mindfulness constitutes liberation from all suffering. Teachers who insist on this as the essential dharma will at once maintain that one who strives for continual present-moment awareness can still make plans and have memories (and somehow an identity that isn’t one), even as one recognizes that future, past, and identity are illusory.

While the canon includes cautions against living in the past or for the future as hindrances to happiness, these ideas are nowhere represented as the Buddha’s core teachings, nor is the development of sati (usually translated mindfulness, but frequently employed in Pali to refer to recollection) traditionally isolated from other Buddhist virtues – such as collectedness, wise attention, and insight –as enabling spiritual development. Where the dharma offers a holistic vision for wisely negotiating the ‘three times’ (past, present, and future), present-momentism offers a recipe for dissociation and bypassing.

Be wary in general of teachers who say, ‘this is all you need to know’, or even hint that you need look no further—or shouldn’t look any further—than what they tell you.

Be wary when you sense that teachers don’t themselves seem to have thought through, are resistant to questions about, or don’t seem to practice in a way consistent with what they teach.

21. No ‘According to the Buddha…’

Hesitate when teachers say, ‘According to the Buddha,’ or ‘As the Buddha taught.’ Restrain the urge to start sentences like this yourself.

‘As I understand the Buddha’s teaching’ or ‘According to tradition’ or ‘The canonical Buddha(s) said’ are better ways to introduce your understanding of the teachings. These are more honest, if less punchy.

At best, what follows ‘According to the Buddha’ is an assertion of certainty about something that is uncertain. We don’t know exactly what the Buddha said or taught.

Typically, the person making the claim, intentionally or otherwise, is making a power move: claiming the authority of the Buddha for a favored interpretation of the teaching. Or that person is just taking a shortcut—but a lazy and untested one.

22. No double standards.

I’ve alluded to one double standard already: the willingness to believe that natural law then—in ancient times—was different from natural law now, in our modern world. Other double standards we may confront in the dharma hall include the views that authoritarianism, guru-worship, sexism, racism, patriarchy, or groupthink then, or in traditional settings or spiritual communities in general, is fine, even spiritual. Even as we condemn these in modern life.

I’m not trying to assert some kind of moral objectivism. On the contrary, I’m cautioning against the notion that ethical norms—our collective responses to our suffering as social animals —have some sort of independent right or wrong to them independent of social conditions. It therefore makes little sense to suppose (as romantic idealism does) that ethical values deriving from ancient norms are better than modern ones. Ethical values then or now are entwined with the social conditions that engender them.

If this is true, It therefore makes more sense to suppose that our modern norms developed from ancient ones (through cultural evolution), and that modern standards are a better fit than ancient ones for the modern world, including modern spiritual communities.

23. Make the translation.

In approaching ancient Buddhist texts and traditional teachings, translate not just words and procedures, but also expressive modes, cultural assumptions, and unfamiliar thought-forms. Aim for language and concepts whereby your WEIRD mind (10) can make sense of the ancient ideas, but without remaking them.

Literal translation ignores how words and expressive modes overlap. Consider, for instance, that Pali has far fewer words in its vocabulary than English does, with many single Pali words covering a range of meanings for which English provides multiple words. (For example, see definition of dharma in Part I, n.1.) Moreover, Pali has more flexible grammar and syntax than English, such that a given Pali sentence can often be rendered in several different ways in English, each with different meanings.

Note too that the societies which spoke the Pali source-languages, the Prakrits, were probably less mobile and less diverse (with less interchange between people from different cultural backgrounds) than modern societies, such that members would have shared a larger set of cultural understandings than modern people do. Prakrit speakers would have understood more easily than English speakers which meaning an interlocutor had in mind with an ambivalent word or sentence, and how its secondary meanings enriched it. A hint may have gone much further between Prakrit speakers than between diverse, analytically-minded, English-speaking WEIRDo’s.

Yet English-speaking WEIRDo’s typically translate Pali (and other ancient cultural practices) as if it were as explicit, unambiguous, and analytical as English. We settle on reductive, single-meaning renderings of originals that communicate with subtlety and complexity because they are suggestive and polysemous.2

Stretch to accommodate the poetic, allusive, suggestive, and elliptical ways—relative to WEIRD modern English—that early Pali communicates.

At the level of ideas, notice that the ancients seem to have had few parallels for powerful modern explanatory concepts including:

  • The private psyche: the idea of a distinct boundary between what happens within and outside of the mind. In the modern view, what happens within the mind is private and subjective. Others do not directly speak, act, or otherwise appear in the mind, and what happens within the mind does not exert a direct influence outside the mind, or connect directly to imagined events and places in other minds.
  • The imagination: the idea of images in the mind, and the faculties whereby they are produced, as distinct and separate from what such images represent. In the ancient and traditional understanding, visions in the mind, whether of past, future, or remote affairs, or of representations of abstractions or supernatural phenomena, were often understood as windows of varying transparency looking onto these phenomena.
  • The subconscious: the idea of subliminal perceptions, intentions, judgments, thoughts, and in general, information processing. Ancient analogues like ‘the underlying tendencies’ and ‘inclining the mind’ in some instances overlap with the modern notion, but strike the modern reader as unformed and fluid.
  • Top-down mental processing: the idea of the brain as an inference engine that generates perception probabilistically. This idea is largely absent from the ancient worldview. Instead, unconscious distortion of perception features prominently, opposed to the ancient ideal of ‘direct’, undistorted seeing.

These and other modern concepts support—and require—powerful reframings of ancient understandings. They are embedded in the WEIRD worldview, whether we acknowledge them or not. (See 24, 25, and 27 for examples.)

If we forego translation of ancient thought-forms, we accept a split between ancient reality and the reality we know. We accept the former as simpler and more plastic than the latter. This requires surrendering, along with naturalism, both an integrated spiritual worldview and the personal integration it enables.

24. Consider the simplest, least mystical way of understanding the dharma before you.

When an idea that you encounter in the dharma (ancient texts and traditional teachings) seems occult, mystifying, or philosophically abstract, ask yourself, ‘what is the simplest, most straightforward way of understanding this?’ This helps keep you on the trail of the best explanation (5).

Here’s an example involving mystifying language: 

  • ‘The verbal formation’ mentioned in one translation of MN 44. This sounds like a category from an ancient, possibly mystical psycho-anatomy. By way of definition, we’re told, ‘First one applies thought, and then one sustains thought, and subsequently one breaks out into speech; that is why applied thought and sustained thought are the verbal formation.’

Hesitate to accept the verbal formation as mysterious. Instead, consider that in early Pali, the words translated here as ‘applied thought and sustained thought’ probably meant ‘thinking and pondering’, and that in English the verbal formation is a nominalization of ‘words forming’. The simplest explanation of the verbal formation is that it means words forming in the mind—a first step in the process of speech. The simple explanation of what’s being said here is that the faculty of speech—whereby we speak—starts with words forming in the mind. Something obvious is being stated, perhaps pointedly (or even, in context, humorously).

Another example, this one of a mystifying concept:

  • The notion of paññā (wisdom, discernment) as a mystical source of knowledge and certainty—one somehow apart from and inaccessible to one’s ordinary faculties—that manifests spontaneously after sufficient, correctly-performed meditation.

There’s no need to posit some occult higher faculty of wisdom. We can understand paññā more straightforwardly as intelligence—intelligence freed from its ordinary, self-centered preoccupations and concerns, its hindrances.

In particular, we can reframe the wisdom that emerges following periods of deep meditation. Traditionally understood as supernaturally-revealed visions (of what has been, what is, and what is to be), we can reconsider paññā as the product of the deeply refreshed and attuned imagination—understanding in modern psychological terms as a private, internal faculty (23).

One further example—a magical being:

  • The Satan-like figure of Mara. Mara often appears in the early narratives—sometimes visibly, sometimes just as an auditory voice—to lead a human character into temptation or doubt. Mara is fully personified in these representations. He has a personality (which varies significantly across portrayals), and sometimes he appears in public, if in other realms.

While it may seem simplest just to accept Mara as real, doing so requires all the violations of natural law and logic entailed by the existence of any supernatural being. It also means denying how similarly to Mara we lead ourselves into temptation and doubt without Mara’s noticeable materialization. And it requires discounting the literal-to-figurative spectrum of representations throughout literary history of inner states as manifestations of Satan or other demons, complicating any simple understanding of Mara as operating independently with the possibility of his manifesting through our internal processes.

The simpler explanation is that Mara is a representation—a metaphor—of something internal and psychological: our inner voices of fear, despair, greed, and other detrimental states.

25. Beware absolutist/perfectionist dharma understandings.

If an idea or ideal that you encounter in the dharma (in the texts, in the hall, or in your own reflections) seems absolutist or perfectionistic (8), ask yourself, would this idea make more sense understood in a narrower way? This helps keep you on the trail of the best explanation (5).

The four noble truths offers a ready example of a doctrine better viewed in pragmatic rather than absolutist terms. The first three truths are often cast as all-encompassing: Life is suffering. Desire (any and all) is the cause of suffering. Suffering ceases (is destroyed) when desire is eradicated. The sweep and conclusiveness of these ‘truths’ may appeal to our absolutist tendencies, but such castings of them are hard to reconcile with our human experience, which isn’t all suffering, and which isn’t possible without desire in its broadest sense (which includes, for instance, the desire motivating the next breath, or thought).  

What happens when we consider the truths more narrowly? We might take into account that

  • ‘Life’ is an English-only add-on absent from Pali formulations of the first truth, which translate better to something like ‘suffering occurs’ or ‘there is suffering’ than ‘life is suffering’.
  • Pali vocabulary has no dedicated, categorical, abstract word for desire that includes every last scrap of motivation (weak or strong, unconscious or conscious, beneficial or harmful).3 The Pali term in the second truth, taṇhā, means thirst or craving, perhaps to denote not abstract desire but rather the kind of strong, hard-to-resist impulses that can overwhelm us.
  • The Pali term for cessation (nirodha) in the third truth is also the term for calm or bring to an end.

With these points and our own lived experience in view, a more realistic and useful teaching emerges. Sometimes we suffer. Many forms of suffering are tied up with craving. Our suffering calms when the grip of our craving releases.

Yet the texts and tradition often do seem to present the noble truths in absolutist/perfectionist terms.4 Other ideas and doctrines are presented in such terms as well. The Buddha is often represented as a perfect being, nirvana as a supernatural ideal, blind faith as advisable, and various articles of such faith as fundamental. It’s cherry-picking (28) to dismiss such teachings from the dharma (texts and teachings) as inauthentic.

Yet alongside the more absolutist teachings, the texts and tradition also offer subtler, less binary ones.  The ‘teaching by the middle’ of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15), the ‘no views’ teachings of the Aṭṭhakavagga (Snp 4) and other suttas, as well as the teachings on uncertainty implicit in the three marks of existence teachings (discussed in 13), comprise resources to accommodate uncertainty (2) and complexity, and thus counter our absolutist/perfectionist tendencies.

Which teachings then should we subscribe to—the absolutist ones or this latter pragmatic, realistic ones? Which should we employ to meet the ambivalent, uncertain dharma (all senses)?  Is it always desire and never craving that the texts are referring to, or vice versa?

Of course, it’s not a binary choice. Both categories of teachings shed light, approached properly. When we understand the development of the texts in naturalistic terms (14), and in view of the human tendency towards absolutism (8), a clear-enough explanation (5) emerges of how the pragmatic teachings would give rise to the absolutist ones, and how both would have a place in tradition. Anyway, binary thinking is itself a kind of absolutism.

26. No blind Sola Scriptura/Magisterium biases.

As WEIRDo’s (10), we tend towards two extremes: go-it-alone, Protestant-style textualism, and neo-Catholic, ideological dogmatism. By we tend, I don’t mean that some of us are one way, the rest the other. We WEIRDo’s tend towards both—if in varying ratios—relative to Buddhists from traditional backgrounds.

This first tendency is to regard Buddhist sacred texts as our best and ultimate sources of spiritual knowledge. We assume it’s up to each of us individually to ferret out the correct understanding of the dharma (the nature of things) from the sacred texts. We reject the authority of tradition—including traditional commentaries—to interpret the dharma for us, and we embrace our personal interpretations as definitive. We cherry-pick (28) texts that we approve personally as authentic and downplay or ignore the rest.

It’s likely we inherit this tendency not from the Buddha but rather from a doctrine of the Protestant Reformation known as sola scriptura. According to this doctrine, each of us can and should form a personal relationship with God through our own, individual study of (Christian) scriptures, rather than through priestly, institutional, or communal mediation. Beyond the emphasis on textual study, sola scriptura and the culture of literacy that it engendered drove the emergence of the WEIRDo individualism complex.5

The second tendency is towards ideology. We WEIRDO’s approach life in terms of fixed ideas and views, as opposed to relationships and situations. This tendency connects to the Catholic doctrine that sola scriptura aimed to reform: namely, the doctrine of the magisterium.6 This doctrine supported the unique concentration of social control by the medieval Catholic Church, which employed systems of belief in imaginary and abstract ideas to displace the social influences of family and kin. The magisterium authorizes the Church, through its authorities and institutions, to dictate which imaginary and abstract ideas are the correct ones—including which interpretations of scriptures. The magisterium thus contributed to a defining aspect of the individualism complex: a shift from a relational to an ideological psychology.7

Beware the assumption that the dharma is hiding in some ancient layer of textual authority that Buddhist tradition has obscured or corrupted. Beware in particular the EBT (Early Buddhist Text) approach, as it’s known in some circles. It’s based on this near-pure sola scriptura assumption.

In general, beware the assumption that the dharma comprises a set of correct ideas, the subtle comprehension of which either amounts to or precipitates liberation. This is the magisterium poking up out of your psyche.

Notice the characteristic warmth, flexibility, and tolerance that you’ll often encounter in traditional Buddhist communities. Notice the corresponding dearth of self-righteousness, normative judgment about beliefs, and us/them thinking. Reflect on these dharmas.

27. Beware of excessive literalism, systematization and homogenization, and decontextualization.

It’s helpful for text-oriented WEIRDo’s contemplating the natural evolution of the texts and teachings (14) to consider three particular forces. It’s helpful to understanding the texts and teachings as evolved and evolving, and to understanding how Buddhist ideas came to take the variegated forms that have come down to us.

The three, as pointed out by Richard Gombrich,8 are

  • Literalism. Faced with a choice between figurative and literal readings, the safer choice between interpretations for scholar-monk compositors and commentators would usually have been the more literal one. Scholar-monks over time came to take hyperbole, fables, figurative language, and jokes in the texts as straightforward description and historical narrative, enshrining the latter as orthodoxy. Thus, a fable on the origins of wickedness—in which the human lifespan shrinks to ten years then creeps back up when people mend their ways (DN 26)—came to be seen as cosmology. Poetic descriptions of ineffable subjective experiences (for instance, the jhāna similes in DN 2) came to be seen as detailed psycho-geographic maps.
  • Systematization and homogenization. Monastic compositors and commentators—like scholars in any age—tended to favor analytic distinctions and systematic hierarchies of ideas over holistic, poetic understandings. Over time this tendency reshaped some texts and teachings, but older versions often coexist alongside newer ones. For instance, where earlier Pali texts characteristically employ multiple descriptors—ceto-vimutti (liberation of mind) and pañña-vimutti (liberation by insight)—to evoke the singular experience of vimutti (liberation), later texts differentiate between these terms as referring to two distinct kinds of liberation, with the second (‘dry insight’) superior to the first (‘touching with the body’ through samatha meditation).9 To take another example, the singular transcendence that Theravada describes variously as nibbana (extinguishment) and bodhi (enlightenment) came to be differentiated in Mahayana as different experiences, with the second superior to the first.
  • Decontextualization. The texts and traditions framed the ideas they present in specific social and historical contexts. When these original contexts are forgotten or ignored, the meanings of the texts and traditions change. For instance, the Buddhist teachings on anattā (nowadays frequently translated in a psychological sense as no-self), are framed in key discourses in the context of—and sometimes specifically as a refutation of—the Brahmanical idea of atman (Pali, atta; an immutable, immanent, divine essence, more akin to spirit or soul than a psychological self). Thus, the concept of anattā in context barely relates to the modern notion of ego that we assume it to concern today.

I highlight these three cultural-evolutionary forces from among the broad array mentioned in (4) mainly for the benefit, again, of WEIRDos who can’t do without personal study of Buddhist texts. We’re prone to the distortions and misprisions these three forces engender, not only as inheritors of a tradition shaped by their influence, but in our own study and development.

28. Recognize cherry-picking.

No cherry-picking. Or at least, be aware of it. By cherry-picking, I mean picking out one or a few passages or ideas from the texts or teachings, then centering these preferred ideas as the essence of the dharma while dismissing or downplaying the rest.

Examples of ideas cherry-picked as fundamental tenets by various modern Buddhist approaches of movements include the following:

  • All you need is present-moment awareness. Live only in (and for?) the present. (See 20 for more on present-momentism.)
  • Nibbana is consciousness; we attain it when we transcend non-duality and attain a special consciousness that lies beyond the sensory realm.
  • One particular formal practice or meditation technique encoded in the texts provides a secret path to enlightenment.
  • The attainment of higher states of samādhi (often translated concentration) is necessary for enlightenment.
  • The attainment of higher states of samādhi is not necessary for enlightenment.

Adherents of each of these ideas defend it as the true dharma on the basis of passages from Buddhist scriptures or tradition, although other canonical passages or traditions present contradictory ideas.

How then are we to decide what is and isn’t the dharma? The traditional Theravada approach is to rely on the ‘Great Standards’. These are a set of interpretive principles rooted in scriptures that authorize interpretation based on the consistency of a given teaching with a preponderance of other teachings.10 This emphasis on consistency may seem reasonable—intuitively appealing—to modern WEIRDo’s.

However, the Great Standards aren’t especially reasonable when applied to a canon of texts that represent multiple voices and traditions over time (14). One wouldn’t expect consistency across a canon understood to have developed naturally over centuries or millennia. Nor would one assume that a frequently mentioned idea is more likely to be true than an infrequently mentioned one, since textual evolution doesn’t necessarily select for truth.

In tension with the Great Standards, a different orthodox Theravada doctrine asserts that a single mention of a dharma idea anywhere in the canon authorizes it for faith and practice. This doctrine directly contradicts the Great Standards as supported by the story of the Buddha telling a monk not to accept understandings of his words that do not accord with a preponderance of his other words.

A degree of cherry-picking is unavoidable, and cherry-picked ideas may well be worth emphasizing. But let's not deny or ignore the parts we’ve picked our cherries from.

And let’s remember that neither a single passage nor a preponderance of textual evidence can verify our knowledge of the dharma, or any knowledge. The truth is uncertain (2), and can’t be dictated by authority (7). Look to the texts and teachings not for verified truth, but as a mysteriously potent source of ideas to support inquiry and inspire development (17).

29. Look for underlying unities.

Be alert for commonalities shared by apparently disparate, even competing teachings. These may point to unitary understandings from which such teachings diverged in the course of their development. Such underlying unities may or may not reflect ‘what the Buddha really meant’ (21)—but they may be valuable nonetheless. Look for their value in the pragmatic visions they often provide, rather than any original authority you may wish to ascribe to them.

Such underlying unities may point to a more holistic understanding of, or approach to, the subjects of the distinct teachings that you discover them within. For instance, competing teachers and schools throughout Buddhist tradition have often framed meditation for insight and meditation for samādhi (usually, concentration) as separate practices with distinct methodologies and aims. Proponents of the former have often considered it in relation to the satipaṭṭhāna (foundations of mindfulness) teachings, and of the latter in relation to the jhāna (meditative attainment) teachings. Typically, a teacher or school will emphasize one over the other, positing the lesser one in a supporting role, or worse, as inferior, unnecessary, or as based on a misunderstanding or corruption of the dharma.

Reconsider the two purportedly distinct approaches as aspects of the same, singular practice. Notice how the mindfulness-of-breathing instructions in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (the holy of holies in the Insight and Goenka vipassana movements) culminates in the cultivation of samādhi. Notice how the samādhi-centric jhāna pericope included in many dozens (hundreds?) of discourses implicitly hinges on mindfulness and issues in insight. Notice that the gradual training and eightfold noble path formulations of Buddhist practice include the development of both mindfulness and samādhi  as integral elements. Finally, notice in your own practice how both mindfulness and samādhi emerge as conjoined, intertwined qualities of the same meditative awareness, inseparable as pitch and volume in a musical note.

The jhāna and the bojjhanga (factors of enlightenment) teachings offer another, related example of aligned but ostensibly distinct teachings. Many teachers regard these as disparate teachings, the former as a concrete map (often with accompanying procedural techniques) of the samādhi route to enlightenment, and the latter as a description of spiritual qualities that arise on the mindfulness path, with no particular place for the jhānas en route to enlightenment. Yet both teachings obviously share conceptual material and terminology presented in closely overlapping ways. A view of spiritual development that accommodates both descriptions—and excludes narrow, technical interpretations that differentiate them—better supports a practice motivated by inquiry.

Take underlying unities as cautions against sectarian allegiances and mechanistic approaches to spiritual development. The differentiation of teachings into competing forms is what happens as ideas evolve. Insights are ramified, reified, dissected, and formalized over time by diverging teachers and schools into variants that become dogmas. Pursue a holistic understanding which accommodates the variants.

There is an underlying—or if you prefer, overarching—unity to the dhamma, accessible to reason and experience. Look for it, rather than for reified distinctions and mysteries. Take what you find not as final truths, but as clues, and as encouragement.


Again, ‘principles’ isn’t quite the right term for what I’ve shared here to convey what my secular Buddhist monkhood is about (or aspires to be about). We generally think of principles as applying in all cases and at all times, but a defining aspect of being a secular Buddhist monk is that it’s not a fixed or totalizing identity. I’m not just a secular Buddhist monk, or even primarily one. I’m certainly not always one (hence the sometimes in the title). Consistent with (13), this identity (like all of my identities) is a contingent (anicca), essence-free (anattā), and unsatisfyingly confining (dukkha) aspect of myself. 

Other aspects—inclinations, aspirations—often take center stage in my monastic practice. I spend quite a bit of intention and effort, for instance, on the less conceptual ‘heart’ practices, which set aside getting or having the right ideas in favor of cultivating emotional capacities.

And then there is the inquiry at the heart of Buddhist practice. This is the inquiry into intentions, on which all our principles and practices supervene. In any given instance of approaching the dharma, the diligent practitioner frequently reflects, ‘What is my intention here?’ If my intention in approaching the dharma is to find the answer that solves all my problems, to prove the correctness of my views, or to demonstrate my superiority, then my efforts can only carry me wide of the dharma, to my own and others’ detriment. ‘Secular’, ‘Buddhist’,” and ‘monk’ are more conditions and means than results or purposes. The principles I associate with these terms are supports on the path of spiritual development. For me, these principles serve (at best) my renunciatory aim of developing understanding and peace. Their value inheres in this, rather than in whatever self-definition or ident

1 Cf. discussion of the problem of explosion in (6).

2 The revived Pali of later commentarial periods narrowed the usage of many words to precise, technical meanings, and in some cases interpolated such usages alongside broader usages of the same terms in the discourses. This may explain why you’ll sometimes find the same word used in the discourses in a broad, poetic sense in some places, and elsewhere in a narrow, technical sense.

3 Rhys Davies notes 18 different terms used to represent the concept of desire, none of which are as expansive or abstract as the English term “desire.” Note discussion below of chanda, which sometimes means something like desire in this sense, sometimes not.

4 For instance, AN 10:58 offers the reality-encompassing assertion, “all dhammas [phenomena; everything we experience] are rooted in desire.” In contrast to taṇhā (“thirst” or “craving”), the Pali term here, chanda is clearly meant here in the broadest sense of the English word “desire,” so four-truth absolutists do indeed have a leg to stand on. However, note that chanda is also often used in various narrower senses elsewhere in the Pali texts. See n.16.

5 See Heinrich’s WEIRD for a far-reaching argument describing this process. I speculate that the sola scriptura bias underpins the focus of generations of Western Buddhologists on ancient texts to the neglect and even derogation of traditional and contemporary Buddhist teachers, institutions, and authorities.

6 This is my inference, rather than Heinrich’s. He doesn’t address the magisterium explicitly in WEIRD. However, the remainder of this paragraph summarizes his argument concerning the medieval Catholic church.

7 In some regards, the interpretive authority that Theravada tradition accords to its great commentaries offers a parallel to the magisterium. But the psychology is different. As WEIRDo’s, we inherit the magisterium-inculcated orientation towards imaginary and abstract ideas as guides to action and self-conception, as opposed to the situational and relational ethics of traditional cultures.

8  Gombrich offers abundant evidence for how each of these forces shaped both the texts and traditional doctrine. However, his argument follows from the simple, naturalistic intuition that the keepers of the texts and doctrine in every Buddhist culture—scholar-monks in their monastic institutions—would have been like scholars in any age and culture. See his How Buddhism Began and What the Buddha Taught.

9 The earlier Pali canonical texts often describe elusive phenomenon with multiple overlapping terms—a poetic strategy known as redundant synonymity. This was a practical aid to memorization in oral cultures, in Gombrich’s account. The differentiation here must have occurred within the period(s) when the texts were taking shape, since some discourses employ these two terms synonymously, others differentially and hierarchically. See How Buddhism Began, 112-113, and for a more extensive example, 96-134.

10 In (10), I discuss valorizing consistency as a characteristically WEIRD tendency. It is such a tendency, as Heinrich argues, but it seems always to have been a scholastic tendency. The doctrine of the “Great Standards”—rooted in canonical passages—emerged from the Sinhalese scholastic (commentarial) tradition. 

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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