Making the most of the human condition #4

by Winton Higgins

– a talk given to a Secular Buddhism Aotearoa New Zealand workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, February 2013


Ask not whether it’s true – ask rather whether it works

Let’s start this session with one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s basic insights: human actions, ideas and truth-claims merely express the individual or collective authors’ needs and interests. Take an utterance like: ‘There is an almighty god, and he has put me in charge of you; if you disobey my rules or disagree with what I tell you, he’ll see you burn in hell forever.’ Once upon a time in the west and the middle-east, this sort of statement was common, and effective.

Thanks partly to Nietzsche’s influence, however, it doesn’t work much any more. We don’t have to bother wondering if there really is an almighty god, whether s/he really did delegate authority to the power freak speaking to us, and whether there’s a hell somewhere ready to receive the non-compliant. We can see that the power freak lacks the means to coerce us to get his way, and is just trying to con us instead.

Our sense of utility in pursuing our needs and interests probably explains why we bipeds have proved so evolutionarily successful. So far, at least.

The birth of the dharma followed the same logic of needs and interests. In the fifth century BCE, the agricultural revolution was in full swing on the Ganges plain, stimulating trade and urban life. Well-to-do townies like the young Siddattha Gotama – and his first converts when he later began his teaching career as ‘the Buddha’ – lived high on the hog and enjoyed life choices (including intellectual inquiry) unknown to the vast majority still stuck in rural life. They expected that their advantages would keep them happy all the time, but instead they still experienced sickness, loss, ageing, death and all the rest of it. Why was life so inherently disappointing and unsatisfactory, even now? They obsessed over this fundamental existential issue. Enter the new Buddha with his teaching of the middle way and the four great tasks in answer to their needs.

The Buddha tackled the problem in a strictly pragmatic manner, without making up a cosmic story about his teaching. In fact, he kept saying that the resort to cosmic questions and stories represented a significant obstacle to embracing the human condition in a meaningful way. As Nietzsche would do much later, he turned his back on all metaphysical speculation and truth-claims. Like Nietzsche, he really belongs among today’s post-metaphysical thinkers, even though he’s been dead for 2,500 years. He concentrates on just how we can get right inside human experience. Both of them counselled against making up stories and theories about the human condition, trying to understand it ‘objectively’, as if we ‘d see it more clearly if we distanced ourselves from our predicament, and took what’s called these days ‘the view from nowhere’ or the ‘God’s-eye view’. 

If you watch telly or visit airport bookshops, you’ll have noticed that the view-from-nowhere brigade is still hard at work debating their opposing truth-claims. It reduces religions, spiritualities, philosophies and sciences down to their propositions – their truth-claims – and argues the toss over whose story is ‘right’, that is, has the most defensible truth-claims. In doing so, they’re missing the whole point: all these schools of thought are human artefacts designed to serve human needs and interests, just as the Buddha’s first discourse patently did. The real issues in the debate should be: whose and what needs and interests are being served, and how effectively? So let’s follow the Buddha’s advice and not get side-tracked into metaphysical claims and arguments.

Going by what we now know about the history and variety of religions, spiritualities, etc. – all those social practicesthey’ve served a variety of practical purposes, such as bolstering group cohesion; providing community-building moral codes and rituals; providing ceremonies for seasonal and personal transitions and life events; holding communal memory; and serving as a platform for aesthetic practices, a language for existential solace and reflection, and working hypotheses to satisfy humanity’s relentless curiosity. Religions are thus no different from other human innovations, like ploughs and buildings. As Wittgenstein noted, humans are ‘ceremonial animals’, and this trait seems to constitute an evolutionary factor. The ability of these social practices to serve their purposes does not depend on their myths being literally ‘true’, or even being believed.

So what is Buddhist mindfulness-based meditation for, and what modus operandi does it propose to serve its purpose? Unsurprisingly, we can pull the answer out of the Buddha’s first discourse, which we looked at yesterday morning. Meditation keeps us focused on the fine grain of our experience, not least our bodily experience, and in this way leads us to ‘fully know’ and embrace what it means to be a vulnerable, mortal but aware being. What it means to be-in-the-world in this guise, in this way. To come to terms with our actual condition, instead of fleeing into fantasies of another set of preconditions than the ones we actually confront. That is, to ground ourselves in our real lives without ‘craving’. This is the first of the Buddha’s four great tasks.

We can find the modus operandi readily enough in the Satipatthāna sutta, among many other places in the canon. Essentially it’s about opening up the totality of our experience as it unfolds, in all its freshness and complexity to awareness (sati), and over time come to understand it (sati-sampajāna). It’s not about being drilled into a cadre-like role in a regimented community of celibate men, and having already-prefigured experiences while rejecting those that don’t fit the template – which is the inherited agenda of formulaic meditation techniques.

Among other things, then, secular Buddhism aims to reinstate meditation to its earliest role as a major vehicle for tackling the four great tasks. To do so it promotes non-formulaic, non-technical insight meditation, in which one invites the senses and the mind to disclose their entire contents in all their layered complexity, so we come to see the whole picture, and gradually discern the patterns in our experience, in our individual way of being-in-the-world. We need an approach to meditation adapted to our actual way of life, not one adapted to the way of life of institutionalised renunciant men. See in particular Unlearning meditation: what to do when the instructions get in the way by Jason Siff and Ending the pursuit of happiness: a Zen guide by Barry Magid.

To meditate effectively, all we need to put forward are our effort and honesty. It makes no sense in this meditative environment to congratulate ourselves on being a ‘good’ meditator who can follow the instructions, or to despair and declare ourselves ‘unable to meditate’ because we don’t experience ‘what we’re supposed to’. (So many people quickly get a sense of lostness, inadequacy and failure when introduced to formulaic meditation that’s touted as ‘the one true way’. The only real failure to note here is the failure to live like institutionalised celibate men!) And we’re certainly not ‘good meditators’ by dint of often finding ourselves in blissful states, nor bad ones for sometimes seeing into the abyss when we’re meditating. All lives contain tragic elements, and we have to receive them in our sits as we would any other experience.

We are all responsible for our own meditation practice, and the major issue we face is whether our approach is fit for purpose. The only indications of meditative effectiveness are often subtle, off-the-cushion ones. Am I gradually strengthening positive qualities, such as friendliness (including to myself), empathy, generosity, clarity, self-reflectiveness, and equanimity? And am I seeing more clearly – and overcoming – my reactivity, immaturity and narcissism?



Already in the Buddha’s own lifetime, some of his followers fetishised his teaching, his dharma, seeing it as a supreme value in itself, as the Holy Grail (we might say in our culture), instead of just as a means to an end. He tackled this problem in a well-known teaching in which he compared the dharma to a raft that someone might throw together, out of any materials that just happened to be lying around, in order to get across a body of water. Having got safely to the other shore, what should the traveller do with the raft – leave it on the shore, or carry it overland on her/his head as something of great value. The ever-pragmatic Buddha strongly recommended in Majhima Nikaya 22 leaving the raft on the shore. It has already served its purpose, and that’s its only value.

Stephen Batchelor suggests that secular Buddhists take this teaching to heart. We should throw together a raft out of what we have to hand in our own time and culture. The question then is not whether this is ‘really Buddhism’; the only sensible question would be: does it float?

  • 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

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