Gotama, the man we call the Buddha, lived in the northeast of what is now India roughly between 480BCE and 400BCE. In his first teaching, he presented his listeners with ‘a middle way’ that avoided the religious dead ends of his time – mortification and indulgence. This path is based on his understanding of why human beings experience suffering and how we can stop suffering: what traditional Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths in traditional Buddhism are: 1) Life inevitably involves suffering; 2) Suffering is caused by craving; 3) We can be free of suffering if we stop craving; and 4) There is a way of thinking, acting, and meditating that leads to complete liberation from suffering.
Based on his analysis of the relevant Pali texts and the line of interpretation developed by the English-born Buddhist monk Ñāṇavīra Thera in the 1960s, Stephen Batchelor has reinterpreted The Four Noble Truths as four tasks. Because these four tasks are so closely connected, we can also think of them as four aspects of one task or a fourfold task.
For Batchelor, Gotama’s teachings about dukkha are not truths to be believed, but injunctions to transform our lives and promote human flourishing in this world.
The four tasks
Batchelor has created a pithy summary of these tasks – ELSA: Embrace life, Let reactivity be, See reactivity stop, and Actualize a path.
Here is a summary description of each task, as provided by Winton Higgins in his book, After Buddhism: A Workbook (ABW):
Task #1: Embrace Life
Dukkha is conventionally translated as ‘suffering’, which would fit the soteriological element in conventional Buddhism. However, this is quite incapable of expressing the Buddha’s explicit list of what dukkha stands for: birth, sickness, ageing, death, separation from what we love, being stuck with what we detest, not getting what we want, and our overall psycho-physical vulnerability. No human being can evade any of these experiences.
So this first facet of the fourfold task is about embracing our human condition. This life also includes pleasure, and the potential for awakening, the Buddha taught. But the way to an enhanced experience of these boons lies in coming to grips with ‘the full catastrophe’, as Zorba the Greek put it… (ABW, p.29)
Task #2: Let Reactivity Be
It’s entirely natural for us humans to react to our constantly shifting environment. We’re hardwired to do that. This is what ‘arising’ refers to: ‘the myriad reactions that life provokes in us’. These reactions are evolutionary factors: back in our old cave-person days they underwrote our survival. But they get out of hand: reactivity is (in the Buddha’s words) ‘repetitive, wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulges in this and that: craving for stimulation, craving for existence and craving for non-existence’. It gets worse: we tend to ruminate on all this stuff, we proliferate it, we cling to it. We become ‘like tangled balls of string’, as the Buddha colorfully puts it (p.76). We need to recognise the pattern, and we need to let go of reactivity – know it, and step back from it, the second facet of the fourfold task admonishes. If we do that, what happens? We move on to the third facet. (ABW, pp. 29–30)
Task #3: See Reactivity Stop
Here comes the nirvana moment: in the Buddha’s words, ‘the traceless fading away and ceasing of that reactivity (taṇhã), the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it’ (Samyutta Nikaya 56:11). This experience doesn’t call for a life of renunciation, highly developed technical meditation skills, or even a male rebirth in aid of monkhood… The trick here is this: to turn up for the experience, to be alert for it, and to know it for what it is – to behold it. We need to consciously affirm and valorize those moments when you see for yourself that you are free to think, speak, and act in ways that are not determined by reactivity… (ABW, p.30)
Task #4: Actualize a Path
The path consists in cultivating complete view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration (or ‘mental integration’, which is closer to the literal meaning)… Cultivation requires ongoing care and focus….it’s [also] a formula for an ethical life. It expresses the dharma’s fundamental values…(ABW, p.34–35)
Seriously tackling these four tasks (or fourfold task) – which is best understood as a positive feedback loop rather than a linear progression – leads to a process of realising our full human potential to live intelligently, compassionately and hopefully with wisdom. Alone, or with others, we can experience the deepest fulfilment that we humans are capable of experiencing.
|To learn more about the fourfold task, listen to these two dharma talks by Stephen Batchelor:|
A fourfold task, part 1
A fourfold task, part 2
From ultimate truths and metaphysics to tasks and ethics
A key element of a secular approach to the dharma is thus the shift from a focus on ultimate truths about reality to an emphasis on the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of the dharma. Secular Buddhists believe that Gotama’s original understandings of how to respond to suffering were transformed into an institutionalized religion based on a set of beliefs.
In his 2015 book, After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor asserts that after Gotama’s death, Buddhism took a ‘…metaphysical turn. By adopting the language of truth, Buddhists moved from an engaged agency with the world to the theorizing stance of a detached subject….Rather than consider injunctions to guide their ethical actions, they debated the truth of propositions to support their beliefs.’ (AB, pp.115–116)
How and why did this happen? It’s a complicated story, but essentially the transformation of Gotama’s pragmatic insights into a metaphysical system of beliefs occurred as the oral tradition sustaining Gotama’s teachings came into contact with other spiritual traditions in India, in particular, Brahmanism (i.e., early Hinduism) and Jainism. To compete, Buddhists needed to show that their version of ‘truth’ was more credible, that it had ‘true’ answers to the ultimate questions in life.
Stephen Batchelor proposes we approach the dharma in a radically different way than the traditional Buddhists that took the metaphysical turn toward truth and ultimate reality over 2,000 years ago. Rather than truths about the ultimate nature of reality, we need to view Gotama’s teachings as pragmatic guides to living in this world.