Stephen Batchelor on the ‘Parable of the Snake’ and the need to reimagine Buddhism

Stephen Batchelor led a meditation and offered a dharma talk to the Community Meditation Center (CMC) on 03 October 2021. CMC is an Insight meditation center based in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City, USA.  Stephen’s talk was on the ‘Parable of the Snake,’ a sutta in the Collection of Middle-Length Discourses (MN 22).

In the parable, Gotama, the historical Buddha, uses a snake as a simile for the dharma and distinguishes between two ways of grasping a poisonous snake. The key section of the sutta is the following:

Suppose there was a person in need of a snake. And while wandering in search of a snake they’d see a big snake, and grasp it by the coil or the tail. But that snake would twist back and bite them on the hand or the arm or limb, resulting in death or deadly pain. Why is that? Because of their wrong grasp of the snake.

In the same way, a foolish person memorizes the teaching … and those teachings lead to their lasting harm and suffering. Why is that? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings.

Now, take a gentleman who memorizes the teaching—statements, songs, discussions, verses, inspired exclamations, legends, stories of past lives, amazing stories, and classifications. And once he’s memorized them, he examines their meaning with wisdom, and comes to a considered acceptance of them. He doesn’t memorize the teaching for the sake of finding fault and winning debates. He realizes the goal for which he memorized them. Because they’re correctly grasped, those teachings lead to his lasting welfare and happiness. Why is that? Because of his correct grasp of the teachings.

Suppose there was a person in need of a snake. And while wandering in search of a snake they’d see a big snake, and hold it down carefully with a cleft stick. Only then would they correctly grasp it by the neck. And even though that snake might wrap its coils around that person’s hand or arm or some other limb, that wouldn’t result in death or deadly pain. Why is that? Because of their correct grasp of the snake.

In the same way, a gentleman memorizes the teaching … and those teachings lead to his lasting welfare and happiness. Why is that? Because of his correct grasp of the teachings.

Stephen pointed out that a snake, like the dharma, can save our lives (venom from poisonous snakes was used in some medical treatments in ancient India) or can be dangerous to our well-being. How we grasp the snake/the dharma determines the outcome. So, what are the different ways that we can we relate to the dharma, what are the different approaches to it?

If we approach the dharma as a set of truths, and then claim that our possession of these truths makes us superior to others, then we are approaching the dharma in the wrong way. We’ll be more concerned, as Gotama says, with ‘finding fault and winning debates’ with others.  For Stephen, once the teachings of Gotama became ossified into metaphysical truths, such as the Four Noble Truths, then Buddhism took a turn away from the approach that Gotama advocated and became an orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This mistaken approach is rooted in our craving for certainty.

Stephen asserted that the correct way of grasping the dharma is to understand Gotama’s teachings as practical and ethical guidelines for living in an uncertain, contingent world. While we are part of the web of ’causes and conditions,’ we also have the capacity to realize ‘nirvanic’ moments in which we can be free of reactivity, free of greed, hatred, and delusion. These two dimensions – conditionality and the potential for non-reactivity – are the core of the dharma.

A correct approach to the dharma thus recognizes these two dimensions and focuses on the fourfold task which is essential to our flourishing and creating a culture of awakening in this world: 1) Embrace life, including its tragic aspects, 2) Let go of reactivity, 3) See and experience the moments of non-reactivity, the moments of mindfulness and compassion, and 4) Act/cultivate the path which allows us to flourish as human beings.

The fourfold task is the basis for a secular approach to the dharma, one which has no endpoint but envisages the path as an ongoing process of learning how to be in the world in a more skillful way.


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