Buddhism didn’t begin as a religion. Siddhatha Gotama, who we call the Buddha, wasn’t a Brahman priest, so that wouldn’t qualify him, and the sramana movement that trained him in meditation wasn’t an authorized religion either. The Buddha was only interested in the problem of human suffering, and he apparently had no interest in the abstract questions of the universe such as the origins of life and so on. He spent his life teaching others what he had learned; when he died, he left suggestions for the ongoing work of the Sangha, but there was no acknowledged leader. The last thing he said was: “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”
Somehow, humanity has managed to continue striving for 25 centuries. Inevitably, the movement toward Awakening became institutionalized, especially after the Mauryan emperor Asoka made it the state religion a few centuries after the Buddha’s death. The statement “All compounded thing are subject to vanish.” doesn’t just apply to sentient beings; it also applies to what the Buddha taught people.
Over the centuries, the changing cultural conditions in India caused a shift in Buddhist doctrine manifesting as the Mahayana, and every time Buddhism has been introduced to another culture, or lasted into another era, the conditions there and then modified what the teachings offer for salvation. In China, the original Pali was translated into Chinese, forcing some changes to the teaching, because the Chinese language was different and influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. Similarly, the Korean, Japanese and Tibetan cultures brought changes in the teachings.
What keeps the teachings vital and capable of providing freedom from suffering? Each generation must “Strive with earnestness” to revitalize the teachings within the context of current cultural standards. The core of the teachings remains valid, that is, that suffering arises from craving and clinging. Craving for pleasantness to arise and remain, or for unpleasantness to never arise. Clinging to the values and beliefs that were established “realities” in that culture or that era, that made someone feel important or accepted. For many practitioners, unfortunately, the way the teachings were presented and practiced became stale and abstract, mired in tradition that was unquestioned.
So here we are in the 21st century, and we face the same task. We bring to our practice the benefits and deficits of our culture. We have our modern prejudices and values, but we also have the brilliant insights of modern scientific and psychological research.
My intention during the next several Wednesday night dhamma dialogues is to explore what attachments we are affected by and what opportunities modern thought and practices give us to “Strive with earnestness”. What does this mean? Hopefully, we will discuss this in ways that are informative and inspiring. To me, it’s important to realize that striving means more than sitting practice, as important as that is. Striving, first of all, is not something to be done with gritted teeth. It means persistent application of mindfulness—the four foundations of mindfulness.
Many people believe that the Buddha mostly taught monks and nuns. A closer look at the suttas reveals that the Buddha’s teachings were offered to whoever was willing to listen and apply what the Buddha taught. It’s likely that many lay people practiced and benefitted from the teachings; now it’s our turn! The sitting practice provides the mental awareness and benevolent self-discipline as a preparation for living a wholesome life. We have the foundation for this—we live more securely and comfortably in our time than any in history. How can we use this opportunity, despite all the temptations (craving) and distractions (clinging)? My hope is that we can cultivate supportive relationships (Sangha), study the immense amount of teachings that have accumulated over the centuries (and we have unprecedented access now through the internet), and the sincerity of our practice.
Finally, we must uncover the core truths that still remain in the teachings. The religious traditions that have so diligently been carried down through the ages for posterity—here and now, we are that posterity! Buddhism began as a “secular” endeavor, that is, not as a religion. Our regeneration must hold an agnostic perspective about what modern religious Buddhism has to offer. The truth is still embedded in the various traditions, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, but is buried in a lot of cultural overlay that enriches the people who were raised in those cultures, but serve to confuse and distract folks in our culture. What will emerge from the blending of those traditions with the scientific, democratic, multimedia and multicultural dynamics of our day? What will a spiritual community look like in this new century? How will we integrate our meditation practice with our daily life routines? It’s up to us to find out.
In my experience, what clarifies my understanding comes from dedicated meditation practice, willingness to go on retreats, and feeling responsibility to read the teachings and commentaries carefully and repeatedly in order to teach each week. What will structure your practice?
Here’s a recording of a talk on secular Buddhism
I hope these comments are helpful for us all. I wish you well. Peter Carlson