Life’s Meandering Path – A Secular Approach to Gautama Buddha’s Guide to Living by Karma Yeshe Rabgye (CreateSpace, 2014)
In the mid-1970s, when the punk movement arrived to challenge the orthodoxies of capitalism and materialism, I remember the sense of excitement and energy that it created among teenagers and young people. Not only was it a pretty raw and gutsy reaction to the effete narcissism of glam rock, it also seemed to hint at a freedom that lay beyond the pretensions, fears and materialism of that we – with the wisdom of youth – knew as the curse of our milieu.
Social conservatives reacted with suitable outrage and defensiveness, but they needn’t have worried. Within a few years, punk’s rebellion had been commoditised, its fire and creativity absorbed and dissipated by the market, and it had been safely transformed into a mainstream fashion. In the process, a few people made a lot of money out of selling the neutered image of ersatz punk.
This seems to be the one of the main strengths of capitalism. Like the cybernetic Borg in Star Trek, it can absorb and draw strength from almost anything it encounters. As long as there’s a demand – real or manufactured – to be met, there’s a buck to be made.
Yoga provides another example. After Richard Hittleman returned from India to the USA in the 1950s, he developed a new, streamlined and secular form of yoga for western consumption, complete with a TV series. Emphasising the many physical benefits of yoga, he hoped students would to go on to study the philosophy and shift towards a yogic way of life.
Yoga went on to become tremendously popular in the West, but today it’s probably safe to say that for many in the West yoga is simply a kind of stretching exercise: a chilled out complement to zumba and body attack. As Christopher Titmuss has observed, ‘Yoga, yoga everywhere, but where are the yogis?’
Sometimes I wonder whether Buddhism runs the same risk. Scholarly practitioners such as Stephen Batchelor have offered a secular vision of the dharma that is extremely compelling to many in the West, myself included. However Stephen and many other prominent secular Buddhists speak and act from a strong foundation of traditional practice which, I suspect, gives them a tacit knowledge of the dharma that is impossible to gain without the years of traditional practice.
It’s a bit like a Picasso line drawing. When one looks at his extraordinary single line drawing of a camel or his more famous dove of peace, they appear simple and free and somehow self-evident. That elegance and economy of line, however, draws upon a deep wellspring of classical, highly structured artistic education.
Like Picasso, secular Buddhist scholars have sought to whittle away the accretions of history and culture in search of what they see as a central truth. And like Picasso, those with a monastic background know what they have cast aside. Their classical training must stay with them and inform their perceptions and their practices, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Of course, there are many secular writers, teachers and practitioners who have never been monks but who still have a comprehensive grasp of the dharma and its meaning. For the rest of us, those who struggle to find time to sit for half an hour in a corner of a bedroom before getting the kids dressed for school and catching the bus to work, there’s a risk that we only focus on parts of the dharma elephant while losing sight of the whole.
The new black
At its extreme, Buddhist practice can be reduced to mindfulness, and mindfulness reduced to a technique that can be applied to everything from pain management (very positive) to wealth creation and sniper training (somewhat less skilful applications).
When an article in the Otago Daily Times last year described mindfulness as ‘the new black’, the writer’s tongue may have been in her cheek, but the fashion reference is a reminder of how the West can strip rich traditions of so much meaning that they risk becoming yet another fad.
Given this risk of dumbing down the dharma, I welcome the publication of Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s newest book, Life’s Meandering Path – A Secular Approach to Gautama Buddha’s Guide to Living. A practical guide to living a life based on the dharma, it describes clearly the breadth and depth of the ethics, thinking and behaviour involved in the Buddha’s meandering path to freedom from suffering.
Yeshe Rabye knows a thing or two about this because, like Batchelor, a he is a westerner who became a Buddhist monk and his understanding of the dharma is steeped in traditional practice. But while Life’s Meandering Path is an entirely secular book, Yeshe Rabgye differs from many secular Buddhist writers in that he continues to live a monastic life in a Buddhist temple in northern India where he studies, writes, teaches and is engaged in the community.
In good secular style, Yeshe Rabye reminds us that:
‘Gaumata Buddha did not believe in luck, fate of chance. He taught that whatever happens does so because of a cause or causes… He believed in individual responsibility, rational thought and social obligation rather than unhealthy fears and irrational superstitions. This point was made very clear in the Mangala sutra…
‘The excellent thing about this sutra is that it is firmly planted on earth. It is not metaphysical, and you are not required to pray to or believe in any superior beings or mythical characters. It is written for ordinary people and so has universal appeal. It can be followed by anyone as it is not religious and does not involve any ritual practices or ceremonies. You do not need to buy anything or even call yourself a Buddhist. It truly is a breath of fresh air.’
Just as Stephen Batchelor reinterprets the Four Noble Truths as a call to action, Yeshe Rabye interprets the Mangala sutra as a practical guide to living an auspicious life. Having developed 38 principles from this sutra, Life’s Meandering Path is devoted to an explanation of these principles and how they can be used to pilot a path away from suffering.
The 38 principles are grouped under five headings. First, there are ‘foundation’ principles relating to basic things like where we live and the company we keep. Next are a set of ‘supporting’ principles such as being disciplined, caring for our families, and having appropriate speech and livelihood.
Then there are ‘social’ principles, including being charitable, helping others and refraining from causing harm; a series of principles concerning our personal attitudes towards the world and others, and finally, ‘refining’ principles such as understanding the four noble truths, working towards freedom from suffering and following the eightfold path.
The last set of principles is interesting, because they describe teachings that are often the core of secular Buddhist practice in the West. But while they may represent the pinnacle of the Mangala sutra’s practices, Yeshe’s Rabye’s model suggests that they are founded on the other 30 principles (rather like Maslow’s self-actualisation relies on more basic needs being satisfied first).
To me, this is a reminder that if secular Buddhism is simply bolted onto an unreconstructed lifestyle then it is likely to have about as much impact on our wellbeing as Christianity has on the lives of those who spend their weekdays ignoring Jesus’ teachings and then seek forgiveness on a Sunday.
In contrast, Yeshe Rabye’s interpretation of the principles seems to advocate for a socially engaged Buddhism with an emphasis on charity, helping and caring for others, and doing good deeds. Yeshe Rabye himself walks this talk by working on charitable projects in India in addition to his monastic practice. However, in an interview with Ted Meissner from the U.S. Secular Buddhism Association, the author says charity is not something that is emphasised in traditional Buddhism. Interestingly, he says that that his own sense of charity springs from the Catholicism of his childhood rather than the compassion teachings of the Buddha.
Life’s Meandering Path explains each of the Mangala sutra’s 38 principles in some detail (sometimes using them to introduce other teachings such as the five precepts), and also includes reflections on each of the principles as an aid to learning and meditation. For those with no grounding in meditation or mindfulness, the book includes introductory instructions.
The book actively seeks to encourage the reader to go beyond an intellectual understanding of the principles. That, as Yeshe Rabye says, is only knowledge.
‘However, if you reflect on [the principles] they will become wisdom and much easier for you to implement. Wisdom here means that they become a part of your life; the very core of who you are and how you think and act. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge has to do with words, concepts and theories, whereas wisdom is beyond concepts and theories. It is something you feel inside. To put it a simpler way, knowledge helps you make a living, but wisdom helps you make a life.’
To me, this is the real value and opportunity presented by Life’s Meandering Path. It is not intended as a book to be read from cover to cover and then put on the shelf. It is intended as a source book to be dipped into for inspiration, help and advice as our lives unfold.
Rather than simply add meditation into our busy schedules, the author wants to help us weave dharma practice into our lives. Whether he succeeds will depend, of course, on us and the effort we put in. But I do like this approach and applaud his aspiration. Life’s Meandering Path is a welcome addition to the library of any secular student of the dharma.
You can buy a copy of Life’s Meandering Path through fishpond.com.
• Reviewed by Jonathan Wood who lives happily in Brisbane with his wife and two children. For thirty years he has been meditating less often than he would have liked, and for the past fifteen he has been finding his own faltering way along the meandering path of the dharma.