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Thoughts on secular Buddhism by Dale S. Wright

Here’s an article by Dale S. Wright, writing in the Insight Journal, with some interesting thoughts on ‘secular Buddhism’ and Stephen Batchelor’s writings:

Mindful playful enquiry










Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that a ‘spirit of enquiry is fundamental to living mindfully’ – not the usual (and in other contexts very useful) analytical or discursive enquiry, but playful open-ended enquiry – without grasping at answers or solutions. It is asking ‘what is this’ in order to see more clearly, and to realise with our whole embodied mind, how the world is. ‘Problems’ are (dis)solved by observation, by non-reactive attention – by letting things be, and being with, our thoughts, feelings, aspirations and fears.

When we practice mindfulness our experience becomes clearer and lighter, unimpeded by attachment and no longer clouded by commentary and opinion. Through non-judgmental enquiry of this kind we open wide the windows and doors of experience – so that the light of what is shines brightly.


Interweaving I


When I observe my own consciousness I perceive currents of identity, strands of personality, constantly forming and re-forming, weaving complex patterns intricately interwoven with the lives of other beings (human and non-human). No matter how long I observe I never find a solitary nucleus of self – separate and unchanging.

Looking in is looking out

Looking in is also looking out. To observe my own being is to observe all beings; to observe myself is to observe the world.

The ineffable present


The present moment is ungraspable. It is empty of self-existence. It is a process – a process of ceaseless change. In a sense there is no present moment! If we try to grasp the stream of it, we ossify it, turning it from the present to a memory, a recollection, an abstraction, to something – rather than a fluid stream. Experiencing the present is to experience a flowing dynamic reality, forever in motion, never still.

Yet, we can be still and at peace in our experiencing of the stream of the present – if we let go of our attachment to it, giving up our desire to hold it as an object or to categorise it, label it, comment on it or judge it. This is mindful meditation or zazen.

The mountain and me

Li Po (Li Bai) Li Po by Liang K’ai 13th C.

Here are a few lines by the Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Li Po, (also known as Li Bai – 701-762). He could be talking about sitting meditation, and probably he is.

The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

We sit in zazen, alert and mindful, observing thought-birds and feeling-clouds fluttering across our sky-mind. Through the window we can see a mountain, it fills our perceptual field.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

[the whole poem is in Hamill & Seaton 2007: 42 – see biblio.]

Still silent observation


The process of zazen is straightforward: watch thoughts arising; see each thought as a thought without judging it in any way; then return to still, quiet observation; when another thought arises, don’t hang on to it – if we don’t try to grasp it (a deeply ingrained habit) we will see it dissolve of its own accord; as it dissolves it loses any power it might have over us; so we return again to still, silent observation. If we do this, what can disturb our mind?

[Kay Larson says something very like this when writing about the American composer John Cage]

Only this moment

Only this moment is tangible – everything else is memory, dream, fantasy, imaginative construct or projection: planning, wishing, wanting, fearing, hoping.

From the perspective of chronological time, outside of this moment lies only an already lived past or an as yet unlived future. From the perspective of experience past and future are dissolved in the here and now.

The student is the teacher

Shunryu Suzuki with text

I remember reading Shunryu Suzuki saying that his presence as a teacher is a reminder to the student that she (the student) is the Buddha. The teacher can act as a guide, a prompter, an agent of wakefulness – but it is the student’s own experience that is the real teacher. Suzuki points out that many of the emotional crises in our daily lives involve a desire for something external – be it words of praise or a material object – and the only way to begin to resolve the crisis is first to experience the crisis, to observe it without commentary or clinging. It is within the arena of our own experience that the strength and freedom to resolve such crises is to be found, not in someone else’s experience. This is obvious, but Suzuki is wise to remind us that resolution and freedom are not to be found in the teacher’s acts or words but in our own experience. We already have all the resources and material we need with which to realise our Buddha-nature. Suzuki’s advice echoes that of an old Zen saying: “I owe everything to my teacher, because he taught me nothing.”

The Sangha – and learning, growth and realisation


Usually the Pali term, Sangha, refers to the community of Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people. But many Buddhist teachers, including Dogen and Shunryu Suzuki, encourage us to take a broader view of the Sangha, to include not just the community of fellow Buddhists, or fellow students of a particular teacher, but also all those individuals we meet who show kindness, insight, wisdom, compassion and equanimity (of whatever religious persuasion or none) – from whom we learn and whose company we enjoy.

People come to Buddhism for many different reasons including those who come for solace, companionship and the support of a group of like-minded individuals, and the structured practice offered by a group that meets regularly and shares a particular Dharma tradition or teacher. Such a local group provides refuge and an existing structure within which participants can shelter. Sometimes this can lead to over-dependence, and a valuing of social and cultural kinship over Buddhist enquiry into the conditions of existence and a coming-to-terms-with such conditions – developing understanding, compassion and peace of mind. Over-dependence, in this context, means: being over-reliant on the values and beliefs of the group, rather than testing these against one’s own experience; and, adhering to the forms, ideas, and routines of a particular teacher, without question or reflection. Over-attachment to the group, teacher or tradition, tends to inhibit learning, growth and realisation.

On the other hand, those who practice more independently, who are not necessarily part of a formal group, run the risk of wandering off course, developing incorrect understanding and becoming too attached to their “own” opinions – self-deception and hubris are tendencies that have to be looked out for and guarded against. Glorying in one’s own knowledge or virtue is just another form of attachment and self-deception, a hindrance to learning, growth and realisation.

Whichever course we take, if meaningful learning, growth and realisation are to occur, we need to maintain a balance between community and individual, group ethos and personal belief, dependence and independence. This is the way to real independence, compassionate wisdom and peace of mind. The Buddha insisted that we have to test his teachings against the reality of our own experience and leave the teachings behind – letting go of the raft when we have crossed the river, not putting it on our backs and carrying it with us. It is important we don’t become attached to the rafts of the Sangha, or of the ego-self.


Birth and death at every breath


The word ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin, spirare, to breathe. So mindfulness, with its attention to the breath, can be described as a spiritual practice.

In a sense we are inspired every time we breathe in, and we expire every time we breathe out: birth and death at each breath.