Making the Most of Being Human
A weekend workshop led by Winton Higgins
Secular Buddhism is an emerging movement that takes a fresh look at the core teachings the Buddha gave twenty-five centuries ago, and translates them into practices and terms that address westerners today.
Although secular Buddhism has some affinity with Buddhist schools that also work with these teachings, it does not identify with any of the ancestral forms of Buddhism, their beliefs, formulaic practices or institutions.
These two days in Wellington in February 2013 consisted of a mixture of sitting meditation, talks and discussion. During the weekend we explored how Buddhist practice can be recast in a way that acknowledges the times and culture in which we live, and the choices and responsibilities that confront us now.
Saturday morning session
§ In the beginning was the human condition: the Buddha’s new way to work with it
In his very first teaching, which we tackled in this session, the Buddha brushed aside Brahmanism’s cosmic framing of human life and brought that life to centre stage. Accordingly, he staked out a workable path of practice which abandoned any concept of ‘salvation’ that meant leaving our humanity behind.
Rather, we should embrace it, ‘the whole catastrophe’, and for this purpose he proposed a ‘middle way’ – the four tasks and the eightfold path – that allows us to make the most of the human condition without diminishing it by falling into self-indulgence or self-mortification. We need to make sense of his teaching in its historical context in order to intelligently adapt it to our own. Secularity essentially comes down to this insight.
You can read a transcript of the talk here and download it as a PDF.
Saturday afternoon session
§ Updating the practice on the basis of its first principles
The four tasks and the eightfold path form a feedback loop. The tradition helpfully regroups the eight folds under three heads of practice (‘the three great trainings’) of ethics, meditation and wisdom. All humans live in particular historical and cultural circumstances, and therefore need to continually ask themselves afresh:
- What ethical stances and practices are appropriate for my time and place?
- How should I apply the Buddha’s pointers about meditation to make them effective under the historical conditions I’m encountering?
- What does the practice of wisdom come down to in the context in which I live today?
You can read the transcript of the talk here and download it as a PDF.Updating the practice on the basis of the first principles (download)<
Sunday morning session
§ Tradition and culture
By calling our practice ‘Buddhist’ we’re locating it in a living tradition that goes back to Siddhattha Gotama (the historical Buddha), a man who lived in the Ganges region in the fifth century BCE. As with any other living tradition, however, we need to keep it alive by going back to the beginning to really understand it, and on that basis figure out how it can best be expressed in practice to meet our needs and aspirations here and now.
We’re constantly challenged, then, to remain conscious of the translations we’re making from one culture to another, and from one set of historical circumstances to another. A living tradition can never sit still, simply transplanting (rather than translating) practices and understandings from one time and place to another. To practise in a tradition is to take responsibility for regenerating it, changing it.
You can read the transcript of the talk here and download it as a PDF.Tradition and culture (download)
Sunday afternoon session
§ Ask not whether it’s true – ask rather whether it works
In the west today – as in the Ganges region 2.5 millennia ago – there are myriad answers and practical responses to life’s big existential questions. They commonly come in packages labelled religion, spirituality or philosophy. It’s also common for each school to claim to be the ‘right’ one because only it possesses ultimately true revelations about God, the cosmos, our place in it, etc., none of which is immediately evident to our human senses.
Many Buddhist schools join in this game. But the Buddha himself seems to have suggested that:
- everything we need to know and understand is immediately available to our ordinary human senses (so sharpen them up!); and
- the true test of a practice is that it works for us.
So what do we want the practice to do for us, and how do we know it’s working? That is: how do we frame our ultimate aspirations, and how do we hone a practice that’s fit-for-purpose?
You can read the transcript of the talk here and download it as a PDF.Ask not whether it’s true but whether it works (download)
§ A printed text of all four talks is available as a PDF here.
§ Winton Higgins began meditating and practising the dharma in Sydney in 1987 and took up teaching (mainly vipassana) meditation in 1995, in city classes and on silent residential retreats in rural venues in Australia.
In 2003 he became one of the regular teachers of the Bluegum Sangha – an ongoing commitment. These days, he also teaches regularly for Golden Wattle and Beaches sanghas, as well as residential retreats for Sydney Insight Meditators, which he helped to found in 2005.
Over the past 18 years, Winton’s meditation teaching has developed towards non-formulaic insight practice based on the Buddha’s original teachings, while his dharmic orientation inclines towards secular Buddhism. He fosters interest in the original teachings and their affinity with modern streams of thought and progressive social commitments.
Winton is a social science academic and a writer; some of his writings on Buddhism can be found here. He and his partner, Lena, have two grown-up daughters and two grandchildren.