Eighteen months ago I was asked to give a talk at the Metta Centre in Bankstown, in Sydney’s western suburbs. The wonderful Tina Ng founded and leads this centre, which is non-denominational even if the Theravādin influence is strongest. Tina was running a series of talks on the different traditions within Buddhism, and wanted me to introduce secular Buddhism.
The audience consisted almost entirely of people of Asian background and various Buddhist traditions which they were actively practising. They listened politely – and apparently with open minds – to my bare-bones account of secular Buddhism, which navigated discreetly around issues that might have caused offence. You can listen to my talk here:
But though the audience remained polite and interested, they weren’t going to let me get away with not mentioning the unexploded ordnance in the room. ‘You haven’t mentioned rebirth. Where do you secular Buddhists stand on that?’ Almost the first question!
I said that we don’t really talk about it much. So far as I know, few or none of us believes in it, and it doesn’t figure in the way we practise.
Thereby began a robust discussion. It kept coming back to the audience’s central bewilderment: why would anyone practise the dharma or call themselves a Buddhist if they didn’t believe in rebirth? Their central motivation as practitioners, it seemed, was to secure a fortunate rebirth.
This experience made quite an impression on me. My audience had identified the crunch point at which secular dharma practice seriously parts company with its conventional equivalents.
The issue goes back to the beginning of the tradition. Have a look at the Kalama sutta at the end of which the Buddha (clearly addressing an audience that included rebirth sceptics) says why it’s vital to practise the dharma even if there’s no life after this one. In essence: you’ll make the most of this life, enjoying the depth and dignity of a life well and optimally lived.
The rebirth perplex
In the Buddha’s time rebirth was a cultural axiom (a bit like the roundness of the earth became a cultural axiom in the west after the Magellan-Elcano expedition returned to Seville in 1522 after having circumnavigated it).
The Buddha never taught rebirth as such, but nor did he ever question it, or address the basic incoherence between the rebirth story and his own teaching of the ephemeral nature of the human person.
After his death, his tradition was absorbed into Indian religious culture with its reincarnation axiom. Rebirth then became holy writ and the centrepiece of institutional Buddhism’s doctrinal capital and promise of salvation. As I witnessed firsthand at the Metta Centre.
The rebirth axiom turns the dharma into a soteriology – a pathway to individual salvation through transcendence to a post- or superhuman condition (‘enlightenment’, ‘full awakening’, ‘liberation’ etc.) beyond all the suffering to which human flesh is heir.
So it’s not easy to disentangle the rebirth project from what Buddhism has become in theory and practice, especially as references to it come up frequently in the canon, and of course in the commentaries thereon, and the way it’s inculcated in traditional communities and their practices.
Fast forward to last month, when I gave a workshop on secular insight practice in Wellington, New Zealand. By way of preparation I bought a copy of the 2018 edition of the most authoritative work on insight meditation: the German-born monk Anālayo’s Satipatthāna meditation: a practice guide. It’s his third book on the sutta in question, which is the foundational text for all brands of insight meditation. And the soteriological focus is still there.
You can read what I said about it in more detail here.
It comes down to this: the sutta gives us an invaluable concept map of the whole terrain of conscious human experience, but the pursuit of individual salvation ends up reducing it to a strip map (or Google map, if you like) showing the One True Way.
The ancient and noble injunction to Know thyself! is reduced to a dogged trek to the exit, eyes fixed straight ahead.
Moving the goalposts
Given all that, I think we secular Buddhists should have an answer to the question posed by the good folks of the Metta Centre. Why do we practice? What is our goal? Our motivation? If we want to energise and sustain our practice, we need to be clear about this.
As I noted above, the Buddha hints at a preliminary answer in the Kalama sutta. In our terms, the dharma guides our search for meaning. It sketches an answer to the basic questions all members of our species must answer (whether they think about it or not): How should I live? What sort of person should I become? These are fundamental ethical questions to which the dharma provides clear answers.
But I think there’s a supplementary answer that also goes to the heart of our meditation practice. My primary source for it is Peter Watson’s 2014 book The age of atheists: how we have sought to live since the death of god. Before God died, doing His will oriented the search for meaning for our western forebears.
In 1881, however, Friedrich Nietzsche announced that He was dead, in the sense that the leading thinkers of the day were no longer referring back to God as the starting point for any inquiry into the big questions. Humans had to find their own way, and set their own priorities, without reference to their Creator and His supposed priorities.
Western practitioners and thinkers in various artistic and intellectual disciplines thereupon took up the search for meaning in the new godless dispensation. They provided many different suggestions for how we should set our own human priorities. But all these suggestions have one common element: we should live as intensely as possible. Better a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, and so on.
One way to live intensely is to practise insight meditation, and to bring that sort of awareness to bear on every waking moment. Stephen Batchelor dramatises that thought by making the experience of the everyday sublime the ‘goal’ of meditation. As he puts it in After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age:
Meditation is about embracing what is happening to this organism as it touches its environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject only the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is’.
So we meditate to experience this world and this life as vividly as possible. Intensely. The way we experience it reflects back at us – it tells us who we are and where we’re at in this moment. It banishes dullness, jadedness, axioms, and routine-induced torpor. It saves us from having a life unlived.
• This talk was given to Kookaburra Sangha in Sydney on 25 March 2019. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. A member of The Tuwhiri Project editorial board, 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. His website is at wintonhiggins.org.