Making the most of the human condition #2


~ by Winton Higgins •


Second talk: Updating the practice on the basis of its first principles

The four tasks and the eightfold path (the fourth of the tasks) are the kernel of the Buddha’s teaching. They form a feedback loop. The tradition helpfully regroups the eight folds of the path under three heads of practice (‘the three great trainings’) of ethics, meditation and wisdom. How can we adapt and use them today? Let’s approach the question historically.


Community and ethics at the dawn of the tradition

Around 400 BCE the Buddha died, aged 80. He’d been teaching for 45 years and had a large following made up of women and men, renunciants and householders, from all walks of life. He’d been born and raised in the small Sakyan oligarchical republic, and in steering his many small renunciant communities he followed republican principles. That is to say, all members were full participants in independent, ideally harmonious communities – ‘flat organisations’ we’d call them in today’s managementese. They had no use for boss-cockies. They owned nothing and relied on the goodwill of small-time monarchs and ordinary folk for protection and sustenance. Apart from that, they were pretty feral, in particular following the Buddha’s lead in not respecting the reigning caste and gender systems.

Over time, the Buddha had to deal with the usual hassles of communal life. Again in an ad hoc way, he developed rules for his renunciant communities, in order to harmonise and simplify them, rules that came together in the Vinaya. For his followers in general, though, he boiled his ethical stance down to five precepts which, expressed in positive form, assert the values of universal friendliness, generosity, contentment, honesty and mental clarity. Note that this was indeed an ethican assertion of fundamental values – as opposed to a morality (i.e., a rule book). An ethic challenges our self-responsibility, intelligence and sensitivity, that is, it calls on us to take the responsibility of being moral agents. We can’t get by as moral agents simply by following the rules. What an ethic demands of us will vary according to our socioeconomic, political and cultural context. Hold that thought.

Except during the rainy season, the Buddha was constantly on the move, visiting these communities, answering their questions and addressing their internal difficulties. This pattern suited the Buddha’s teaching practice: turn up on the outskirts of a town, have his renunciant followers or the townsfolk toss him questions and real-world conundrums, and spontaneously answering them. He explained the principles of meditation in some detail, but never reduced them to how-to technical instructions. He gave no planned sermons, no scheduled lectures, just off-the-cuff, highly situational performance pieces. In today’s euphemism, these conversations were ‘frank and fearless’ on both sides. No one learned anything by grovelling deferentially. Such are the suttas we inherit, the discourses of the Buddha in the Pali canon.


Institutional imperatives moulded approaches to meditation

In the centuries following his death, however, all this changed. Buddhism became organised as a religion, and took on the trappings of a religion-like-any-other. Semi-feral renunciants morphed into monastics organised into large regimented units structured around hierarchies. The Buddha’s ad hoc, off-the-cuff teachings were codified into orthodox translations and commentaries. Impatient with the one-off, contextual nature of the suttas, some brave souls decided to distil them into what they called – with stunning hubris – ‘the higher teaching’, the seamless Abhidhamma. It was full of metaphysical truth-claims, and among other things became the basis of technique-heavy vipassanā meditation developed above all in Burmese and Thai monasteries. (Along with Zen, this form of meditation achieved prominence among western adherents in the late 20th century).

In accounting for this development and its knock-on effects in the Buddhist world today, the far-reaching effects of institutionalisation are often missed. Inevitably, power becomes the dominant issue, both externally and internally. Especially in pre-modern times, large-scale organised religions of all stripes wielded enormous social and cultural power, and their hierarchs tended to fall into bed with other power-holders – temporal rulers and socio-economic elites – legitimating them and promoting social integration on the basis of the elites’ conservative patriarchal values, including the subordination and marginalisation of women.

To sustain their external and internal power, Buddhist monastic hierarchs had to train a disciplined cadre of subordinate monks. Enforcement of the monastic rule and a particular approach to teaching meditation served this purpose. The need to exercise authority and train a cadre, rather than support individuals’ spiritual quests, changed the whole way that meditation was taught. It became highly technical, formulaic, based on the metaphysics of the Abhidhamma. Celibate males living regimented, institutionalised lives were drilled in standardised meditation techniques intended to produce standardised experiences. (Non-standard experiences were deemed to be ‘not meditation’ and frowned upon.)

The standardised experiences, duly ‘reported’ to one’s teacher, could in turn be certified at prescribed check-points to facilitate an orderly promotion process based on ‘spiritual attainment’. Spiritual progress came down to compliance with the template.


Retrieving non-formulaic meditation

When we look at the account of the Buddha’s own main teaching on meditation, the Satipatthana sutta (‘the discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness’), unsurprisingly we find no such agenda. Consistent with the focus of the four tasks on the human condition, the leitmotiv of the Buddha’s teaching is human experience in all its variety and complexity.

Meditation is for sharpening our senses to delve more deeply into our individual direct experience of being-in-the-world, and thereby coming to understand its cause-and-effect dynamics, and so by degrees coming to embrace and negotiate it more skilfully. As we’ve all seen, surely, the flow of human experience is complex and multilayered.

So as not to lose the plot as we try to become aware of all this complexity, the Buddha asks us to account for our direct experience in four areas – roughly: physical; feeling-tone; emotional; and cognitive. If our attention tends to narrow into one of these areas, we have an instruction to check out what is happening in the other three as well, so we enter into our experience more fully and see the whole pattern.

Naturally, meditative approaches that work to formulas, and ask us to shun large slabs of our experience as ‘not meditation’, are false friends. Which is why, in our meditation sessions today, I’ve invited you to approach it without technique, or at very least to take a wider view of your experience when you apply a technique that you habitually use.


In conclusion

Let’s return to the three great trainings. What are they asking of us today, as relatively well-off, well-educated individuals, citizens of a stable, affluent democracy, thus living in a highly unusual, privileged way compared to how most humans live?

Ethics. Mere compliance with any set of rules doesn’t even scratch the surface of our ethical responsibilities. An ethic of universal friendliness to all sentient life, generosity, contentment, honesty, and lucidity, challenges us in the unique and immediate circumstances of our individual lives, in how we treat those around us, those we meet on the daily round, what we buy (having checked out its source) and how we vote (given the contribution our elected representatives could be making to human and non-human ill- or well-being).

In the Buddha’s time, political life and institutions barely existed and had negligible impact on well-being. Now organisational decisions (government and corporate) deeply affect all our lives – in promoting global warming, environmental degradation, mass death from preventable diseases, growing relative deprivation within and between countries, mistreatment of other species, etc. The Buddhist ethic carries major implications for how we tackle or duck our civic responsibilities.

Meditation A great deal of what passes for Buddhist meditation today was originally designed to train and regiment celibate men living in total institutions. Hence its formulaic nature, and its claim to be ‘authoritative’, ‘the one true way’, and so on. But we are not celibate men, and we’re living highly complex, individuated lives. On the basis of the Buddha’s own teaching on meditation, we need to forge meditation practices that directly tackle the four tasks in the first teaching, that is, ones that embrace the whole of the human condition and work with it. We need to master the principles of meditation and learn to manage our own practices intelligently.

Wisdom. In Buddhism this, too, is a practice, but a derivative one. Carefully observing the outcomes of our ethically significant actions teaches us invaluable life skills. As does a gentle, exploratory receptiveness towards our unfettered meditation experience. Giving practical effect to what we learn in these two ways goes to the core of the practice of wisdom.


  • Read the third talk in the series here
  • Download all four talks as a PDF here
  • See the conversation between Winton Higgins and Lloyd Geering
    Is secular religion a contradiction in terms? here


• This talk was given to a Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand workshop in Wellington, New Zealand in February 2013. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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