Making the most of the human condition #1
by Winton Higgins
– a talk given to a Secular Buddhism Aotearoa New Zealand workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, February 2013
First talk: In the beginning was the human condition:
the Buddha’s new way to work with it
This workshop is billed as a secular Buddhist workshop. Secular Buddhism is a newly-labelled movement, mainly in the English-speaking part of the western world. But the cultural adaptations of Asian-Buddhist concepts, practices and organisational forms, that the label now covers, have been accruing – spontaneously and unlabelled – for around two decades. Secular Buddhism is not a ‘school’ of Buddhism: it holds to no orthodoxy, and is already quite a diverse movement. It is not interested in a new sectarian development, but rather in bringing deep, coherent dharma practice within the cultural reach of us in the west.
To start off, we need to clarify what secularity implies. In popular parlance, ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ are opposed terms. There is undoubtedly a certain tension between what we understand to be secular as opposed to religious, but for the purposes of this workshop I’d ask you to place a question mark over any sense that secularity is simply the negation of religion.
We can draw more useful senses of secularity from its etymology: it comes from saeculum, Latin for (originally) a human lifespan and (later) an age or century – as in the French siècle, century. So firstly, secularity draws our attention to particular historical-cultural contexts and situations (very much in the spirit of New Zealand’s great historiographer JGA Pocock) as necessary background to understanding any historical figure’s utterances. And how we apply any inherited set of practices and ideas likewise depends on our sensitivity to our own specific historical-cultural circumstances.
A second implication of secularity arises from this focus: if all important utterances address specific issues in particular contexts, then they can’t be treated as timeless truths, to be accepted and applied – anywhere, anytime – just as they stand. Those who come later need to interpret and adapt them. Here we locate the main tension between secularity and many expressions of religion: religious people often treat their founder’s utterances as timeless truths to be accepted and applied at face value in all situations.
Of course, this or that religionist can quite unconsciously (and in some cases consciously) put an interpretive spin on ‘original’ teachings so as to shore up their own ideology and/or institutional power. We’re all familiar with one form of this syndrome: fundamentalism.
By and large, secular Buddhists delve into the earliest record of the Buddha’s own teaching, the Pali canon, as their starting point. There are two immediate problems here:
- The Buddha didn’t speak Pali, partly because it’s an artificial language that hadn’t been invented at the time, so we’re already dealing not with the original wording but rather with a translation. And like all such ancient teachings, they have now passed through many hands, which have left blotches and fingerprints on the text, often quite self-interested and unconsciously prejudicial ones; and
- Subsequent schools have interpreted – commented on – the texts to give them a spin helpful to the school in question. We need to put the commentarial tradition to one side if we’re to come to grips with the Buddha’s own teaching.
So we’ll never know for certain what the Buddha ‘really said’, still less what he ‘really meant’. But fresh study of the texts in question can give us a plausible idea of what he most likely meant, and on that basis we can productively interpret the teachings and adapt them to our own needs and circumstances.
First teaching: the human condition – the tiger we must learn to ride
If you’ve done Buddhism 101 in school or on the web, you’ll think you know that the tradition rests on four so-called noble truths that the Buddha supposedly declared in his very first teaching:
- life is suffering;
- craving is the cause of suffering;
- the end of suffering is attainable; and
- the noble eightfold path is the way to end suffering.
We’re off to a poor start here. The Pali text we’ve actually inherited doesn’t say anything of the sort. In fact, it now appears that the original Pali text didn’t even contain the expression ‘noble truths’ (ariya saccāni), let alone any attempt at revelation in propositional, truth-claim form. For a discussion on this point, see Stephen Batchelor’s article ‘A secular Buddhism’ which was published in the Journal of Global Buddhism.
To the best of our current knowledge, as set out in Mahavagga 1, 6.16–28, the following outlines what happened and what was said. I’ll be following Stephen Batchelor’s translations throughout, by the way. After his major awakening experience, the Buddha (as Siddhattha Gotama now calls himself) isn’t sure if he can convey what he’s learned to others. But out of compassion he decides to give it a go anyway. He chooses an audience of five of his former associates from when he was on a path he subsequently rejected, namely asceticism (self-mortification). These five men are still following that path. So initially they resist what he says, which no doubt forces him to really work on, and experiment with, how to express his new insights into the human condition.
First he tells them he’s found a path of practice – a ‘middle way’ – between two dead ends: addiction to pleasure through sensuality, and addiction to self-punishment. We can label them hedonism and asceticism. Both are undignified and unfulfilling, the Buddha says. Hedonism – the obviously more popular dead end – is also ‘low’ and ‘village-like’; while asceticism is also a bad idea because it’s ‘painful’. Being dead ends, by definition neither leads anywhere; both are states of stuckness. By contrast, the middle way – consisting of authentic (or ‘right’ or ‘whole’) understanding, thought/intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and mental integration – leads to calming, clarity, awakening, and the reduction of anguish.
Then the Buddha comes to the centrepiece of this first teaching: four central issues a spiritual practitioner of the middle way must identify, recognise as workable, and fully plumb:
- What he calls dukkha (a crucial dharmic term). Conventionally it attracts a number of English equivalents: unsatisfactoriness, suffering, stress, distress, anguish etc – on a scale from the catastrophic to the merely irritating. But the Buddha actually specifies what dukkha includes, and it’s an interesting list: birth, ageing, sickness, death, contact with whom and what we dislike, separation from whom and what we cherish, not getting what we want, and our general psycho-physical vulnerability. (Let’s note in passing: none of us can avoid anything on this list. Purely and simply, these items constitute the inevitable downside of the human condition. In western philosophy, these aspects of the human condition are often boiled down to time, chance, and death. We don’t create them by craving; they’re endemic to human life as such.) We must come to know dukkha fully, the Buddha says.
- Arising (samudaya), in particular the arising of craving. The Buddha characterises craving as ‘repetitive, wallowing in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that: craving for stimulation, for existence [in certain states], and for non-existence.’ The implication is that we fall into craving as an evasion – instead of an embrace – of the human condition. Instead of dealing with the situation we find ourselves in, we reach for another. The unintended consequence of craving is that we add to the trouble we already attract by dint of being human. The Buddha’s instruction here is: let go of craving.
- Ceasing (nirodha): ‘the traceless fading away and cessation of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it’. (This experience has a name – nirvana ([nibbāna in Pali].) Experience this ceasing, the Buddha says.
- The path (magga) with its eight branches noted above, that is, ‘the middle way’. Cultivate the path, the Buddha instructs.
So here is the kernel of the Buddha’s teaching, the foundations he would build on during the next 45 years of his teaching career. We need to work with these four focuses – in each case by (a) identifying it; (b) seeing the possibility of rising to its challenge; and (c) plumbing or cultivating it fully. Three aspects of four focuses (or ‘tasks’) comes to twelve aspects.
The Buddha goes on to say that, until he became ‘entirely clear about the twelve aspects of the four’, he ‘did not claim to have had a peerless awakening’. Perhaps his formulation of this teaching – in order to convince his recalcitrant audience on this occasion – was the crowning achievement of his own spiritual journey. For now, he says, his ‘mind is unshakeable. There will be no more repetitive existence.’
His words land in the hearts and minds of his five listeners. They get it, they’re converts. Their leader, Kondañña, sums up what he’s learned in three words: ‘Whatever arises ceases.’ The ‘takeaway’ from the teaching has nothing whatever to do with truth-claims. It has to do with how we choose to deal with (or fudge) being-in-the-world as human beings.
Those of you who have been introduced to a more conventional Buddhism might find this presentation surprising. Here is a buddha who is not offering revelations that we couldn’t figure out from our own experience (though he’s pointing us in a certain direction, helping us to mine and refine our own experience). We can get down to work without first signing up to any metaphysical truth-claims at all. He’s not telling us that we suffer because we crave; rather, we suffer because that’s endemic to being-in-the-world (along with joy, and the possibility of awakening, he’ll point out later).
This is the tiger we must learn to ride. Hankering for a ride in the tram instead will just increase our unease. And he’s not offering to relieve us of our humanity – our being-in-the-world – by whisking us off to a suffering-free heaven realm. Rather, he’s offering us a helping hand to make the most of this world, and this vulnerable, human body-mind, by sticking with the real. Whatever arises ceases, remember?
What are we today to make of this no-magic-tricks buddha, steeped as we are in our culture of scepticism, evolutionary biology, big-bang cosmology and the rest? Maybe this is a buddha we can relate to.