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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.
When I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London many years ago, my supervisor once accused me, during discussion of a text by the early Buddhist writer Nagarjuna, of being ‘obsessed with emptiness’.
Something that goes by the name ‘mindfulness meditation’ is a hot commodity these days. You can find many models on the market, some are more or less expensive, and of varying quality (like cars and dishwashers). The brands that are on the market either claim claiming origins in the Buddhist tradition, which lends them the kudos and the aura of ancient wisdom, or studiously avoid doing so.
What were the expectations of people living in the Buddha’s era (5th century BCE) about meditation practice, and how do they compare to our own?
In a number of Buddhist traditions political activism is discouraged. Almost certainly this stance arises from their institutions’ heavy reliance on royal or other powerful patronage, which could be withdrawn if dharma practitioners translated their ethics into political convictions, let alone action.
The mythical figure of Mara in the Pali canon provides us with an obvious starting point for understanding evil. He appears again and again to the Buddha and his advanced disciples, preferably when they’re meditating. He’s disguised as a well-meaning stranger offering friendly, banal advice, the import of which would throw the hearer right off course if s/he heeded him.
Western countries accord their citizens the freedom to practise the religion of their choice. But also as harbingers of the narcissism epidemic, they give Buddhists an extra incentive to practise ardently, in order to remain in good non-narcissistic health and so live skilful, fulfilling lives – including the nurturing of deep relationships.
Known as the ten undeclared topics, these are the statements that Gotama, the Buddha, refused to give a view on.
Is this talk – for you – a good expression of a contemporary secular Buddhist approach to political and social issues?
The question is whether ‘awakening’ in Buddhism has anything supernatural or distinctly ‘religious’ about it, or whether it is a natural capacity that can be understood in the light of evolutionary biology and cognitive science. For some people this dilemma is not of any interest because they come down so firmly on one side of the question, however for me it remains difficult to think clearly about whether or not Buddhism should be called a ‘religion’.