The dharma as a culture of awakening


~ by Winton Higgins •


Ever since westerners began to practise the dharma in their own societies, they (and their observers) have had great difficulty finding an appropriate category for it. It’s been pigeon-holed as a religion, a faith, a belief, a practice, and a philosophy.

Many of us don’t feel comfortable with any of these categories. Secular dharma practitioners feel more uncomfortable than most. All these categories ascribe to the dharma characteristics that simply don’t belong to it. So tonight I want to explore with you Stephen Batchelor’s new, custom-built descriptor: in chapter 11 of his recent book, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma from the ground up he proposes that we see the dharma as a culture of awakening.

Let’s clear up our terms. Any sort of culture (think: agriculture or horticulture) makes something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Everyone in any human community shares a culture which we can compare to the operating system in our computers: the culture (and especially the language embedded in it) shapes and creates meaning for us, empowering us to think, communicate, and act. Like everything else in our lived world, cultures and institutions change and grow, responding to changing conditions. Or they stagnate and wither. Just like plants.

Cultures (and the languages embedded in them) are communal goods and basic to our ability to function in the world, starting with our bare survival, and ending with our maximal flourishing as human beings. In describing the dharma as a culture we’re thus getting past the idea that it’s exclusively about individual solutions to existential problems. In calling it ‘dharma’ we’re linking this culture to the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, the historical Buddha.

Awakening refers to our gaining significant insight into our human condition and its full potential for personal development.


The pragmatics of truth-claims

But as westerners, we’re already functioning in a wider ambient culture that provides us as dharma practitioners with some great resources, but also sets some traps for us that we need to steer clear of. As westerners we inherit a religious culture centred on belief rather than on practice – thus the polar opposite of Indian traditions in general, and the dharma in particular.

The idea here is that certain propositions about God etc. are absolutely true, and believers therein are on the money, while everyone else is an infidel. Exactly the same idea of absolute truth now underpins the way we receive scientific truth-claims: there’s an absolute truth about everything that science has discovered, or can discover, and all contrary views are delusional.

So long as we persist with this idea of truth, we’ll continue to get our knickers in a twist about traditional Buddhist truth-claims (like karma, rebirth, and post-human states of enlightenment), just as many of us did about such things as the virgin birth, God, heaven and hell that our birth religions propagated.

Fortunately we have a school of philosophy – pragmatism – which can winch us out of this bog. According to it, assertions should be judged by their usefulness in achieving worthwhile human purposes, such as well-being – and not for their supposed correspondence with ultimate reality.

For Buddhists in a number of Asian cultures, karma, rebirth and other-than-human states of being are plausible and bear important messages about actions having consequences, the possibility of escaping repetitive existence, and the benefits of doing so. So these doctrines are useful to them, whether they’re ‘true’ or not.

But our western culture doesn’t support these doctrines, so they’re not useful to us, even though we need – just as much as traditional Buddhists – to take to heart the messages about conditionality and about the possibility and benefits of overcoming repetitive existence. Our western culture does contain other concepts and a reality construct that allow us to articulate these messages so they do ‘land’ in us.

And wonderfully, they chime rather nicely with the way the Buddha himself taught these fundamental points. For instance, the first ‘fold’ of the eightfold path is sammā ditthi (appropriate view); it refers to the development of working assumptions that support effective dharma practice, not access to Ultimate Truth. And the original Pali word conventionally rendered as ‘rebirth’ – punabbhava – literally means ‘again-becoming’, thus repetitive existence.


The communitarian imperative

We need to be on our guard against another bias in our own culture: that towards individualism and the search for individual solutions. We can’t awaken all by ourselves, as isolated individuals. That’s why we need a culture of awakening. We need culture (including language) to function as humans, just as our computers need operating systems. But culture and language are communal products that require constant communal support and upgrades to remain fit-for-purpose.

At bottom, a community isn’t an empirical sociological group, but rather a process whereby we human beings come together, form relationships, communicate, and harmonise our efforts to get things done. Things we couldn’t possibly do as isolated individuals – including surviving at all. Let alone find meaning. To say nothing of awakening. In Heidegger’s terms, community is the essential human practice of being-with-others, to further common projects.

So here we all are tonight, forgathered and interacting with each other under the auspices of something called a sangha. A sangha is a communal practice dedicated to individuals’ mutual support in pursuit of a central value – awakening in the Buddha’s dispensation. As with any other process of community, we need to think about how we should speak to each other, and how we should associate with each other, to advance our shared central value.

In other words, we need to think about generating and participating in a culture of awakening appropriate to the resources of the current, wider ambient culture, and the kinds of human beings it has moulded us into. But paradoxically, our starting point is in an ancient Pali word that originally referred to a tribal council of elders. A sangha was the practice of decision-making and coordinating that contrasted with absolute one-man rule (literal ‘monarchy’, more familiarly known as tyranny).

The Buddha himself grew up in the sanghic political community of the Sakiyans. Since his father chaired the council, he knew exactly how and why this model worked. Not surprisingly, when he attracted followers as a spiritual teacher, he adopted the model (and even the word sangha itself) for the way his small, local groups of followers should practise community.

These days, the general model in question has a very long pedigree which elucidates its ramifications. As usual, the Greeks (not least the Athenians) were onto it at the same time as the Buddha. Here in the west we inherit their version – suitably enhanced from time to time, for instance by the later insistence on inclusiveness – under the rubric of civic republicanism. Its basic value is freedom understood as self-rule, or self-determination. The practitioners meet and speak as equals, free of power inequalities and other constraints, and in this way make all the vital decisions that no other power-holder can thwart.

The contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the process involved here an ‘ideal speech situation’. It’s one in which there are no barriers to entry, and the participants discuss their mutual affairs as equals, free of all manipulative or ‘coercive’ influences, as they work towards an eventual consensus.


The eclipse of the Buddha’s model of sangha

Alas, soon after his death, the Buddha’s model of spiritual community was overthrown by its opposite – the exclusivist, hierarchical, authoritarian model that became the template for Buddhist monastic life and organisational culture. In chapter 10 of After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor relates how Kassapa seized the reins and brutally marginalised Ānanda to achieve this outcome – fortunately without expunging the Buddha’s and Ānanda’s antithetical sanghic values from the canonical record.

After Kassapa’s take-over, Buddhist institutions came to adopt many of the features that western monotheistic religion would take on: hierarchy, dogma, exclusion of women, a professional priestly class, disconnect between the sacred and the profane, deification of icons and demonisation of ordinary human traits, the promise of ‘transcendence’ to blissful post-human or super-human states for the compliant, and seriously scary post-mortem destinations for the non-compliant.


Retrieving the ancient city

Stephen sets the Buddha’s parable of the ancient city centre-stage as the clearest, most succinct statement of the Buddha’s own sanghic values, perhaps of his whole mission as a spiritual teacher.

In this parable, the Buddha compares himself to a wanderer in a jungle who stumbles on the ruins of a remarkably commodious ancient city. He persuades the local authorities to restore it, and sometime later it’s once again home to a growing community, one bustling with life.

The citizens of this city have no master or priests. Their harmony, purposefulness and flourishing come from their practice of the four tasks. They express the dharma in their everyday lives. Reading between the lines, we can assume that they manage their common affairs by exercising civic-republican virtues, as well as equality and inclusiveness, and the ethic of the ideal speech situation.

The restored city is not a utopia. It’s not a communion of saints, or a six-star resort for glittering bodhisattvas or austere old arahants. Nor is there any institutional template to be rigidly applied. Rather, it’s a human-friendly place that provides broad hints about how we, in our own home setting, might develop our sanghic life, and the culture of awakening we might generate in the process.

• This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney in June 2016. 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.