The Four Noble Truths: beginnings
Words are so important. For those who haven’t yet realised it, they are extremely powerful and suggestive symbols. We can communicate in a way that helps understanding and that stimulates opening and curiosity, or we can communicate in a way that leaves people feeling cold and uninspired. What is important in presenting such traditional and timeless teachings is stimulating understanding, and being flexible in the way we express them so that they can be opened up to the genuinely curious. A core tenet of NLP for example is that ‘the meaning of your communication is what is understood or received’ and not necessarily what you intended to say. This puts the onus on the communicator to strive to make clear what they wanted to communicate and the form should ideally match the symbolic reality in which the interlocutor exists. I shall take this tack for these blog posts and attempt to offer updated interpretations of the Four Noble Truths to make them more accessible for a westerner. Here goes.
The First Truth (Note: have removed noble. I mean who says that these days)
Life features both ups and downs that cannot be avoided. The first truth points to this. It tells us that suffering, rather than being avoided, should be acknowledged as a fundamental aspect of a human life. The word suffering usually requires further explanation. Suffering is the typical translation of Dukkha, the Pali word found in the oldest Buddhist texts for the First Truth. Often the key terms that we find in Buddhist teachings, whether they emerged from Sri Lanka, Thailand or Tibet, express a concept rather than a straight word-for-word translation. Often misunderstanding arises due to word-for-word translations from inexperienced historians and academics. John Dunne, John Peacock and Rita Gross are among those working diligently to re-examine the culture of translation and the intended meaning of central terms and themes within Buddhist teachings. This has at times led to radically different interpretations of traditional teachings and central themes. Dukkha is one such example. Dukkha was often translated as misery, pain, and suffering in the first western texts on Buddhism, although it turns out it translates much more faithfully to its Pali origins as unsatisfactoriness. Suffering makes me think of pain and agony, and misery and despair, whereas unsatisfactoriness hints at an underlying quality in much of our less dramatic and more mundane existence.
If we are prepared to go further with these teachings, it is useful to consider the First Truth as a category of symptoms that most of us would admit to experiencing fairly often. This category includes unsatisfactoriness, dissatisfaction, frustration, disappointment, separation from what we want, separation from what makes us happy, loss, confusion, disconnection, the whole array of negative emotions and feelings, as well as a lingering sense of incompleteness. Suffering also means the inability to live life as fully as we would like. Pain is suffering too of course, but many teachers point out that pain in the physical is simply pain, whereas the added elements of reaction to that pain and interpretation of its significance are suffering. Some of us have fairly pleasant and stable lives of course, but even the richest, healthiest individuals on the planet experience a good deal of the above. And if their wealth and health should fall apart, they too will taste some of the more gross forms of suffering that the less privileged know all too well.
Although the Four Truths emerged at a time when much of the ease of modern living was not available, when suffering was much more in your face, visceral and raw, it still remains the starting point for the Buddhist path. Why is that? This first truth points to how much of our day-to-day existence is wrapped up in trying to keep ourselves separated from unpleasant experience. The central life goal for most people after basic survival is to be happy. Happiness though turns out to be an extremely subjective experience and an extremely difficult one to hold onto. It is, like all experience, temporary by design. Because it is so we tend to feel bad and a sense of loss when separated from it. Secondly, many of us spend our lives jumping through hoops to avoid looking at the presence of suffering around us and in the wider world. We close our eyes to it all. We separate and this turns out to be a central theme in how ‘Dukkha’ is sustained. By starting from an honest examination of the presence of unsatisfactoriness in our lives, we slow down and begin to get in touch with a more authentic experience of being human in the world that is less based on attraction and aversion. These two beasts are the primary reactive impulses that drive our search for happiness and our urge to get away from what we dislike.
The Second Truth
There is a cause to this suffering that runs very deep within us. It is sustained by the advertising industry, by the ‘me’ culture we are still living in, by TV, films, and so on. It is wrapped up in our name, our preferences, our sense of self-importance, and self-pity, by our place in society, our relationship with meaningful others. It is also embedded in our beliefs and the way we constantly frame and conceptualise experience. The primal cause for suffering and our distorted living is the belief that we exist as separate, external individuals that we have a self, an ‘I’ that truly exists on its own terms.
What emerges out of this phantom self is the need to sustain, defend, maintain and protect this construct from the world out there. Because of this we identify with experience and take life personally. My experiences are ‘my’ experiences. We get attached in all manner of ways to our possessions, our beliefs, our ideas, our goals, our sense of values, our categories of right and wrong, to those we have around us, to our feelings, our favourite emotions, and our identity. We incessantly attach to experience a subjective meaning with a self-referenced bias. We refer everything back to ourselves and because we hold this idea that we are a fixed identity, we believe somehow, against all logic, that the world should be fixed too. In order to meet our expectations we become very attached to very specific thoughts, feelings and emotions, which have the core function of running us in circles whilst feeding the same ideas, beliefs and personal mantras to confirm our position in the world. These are all fed by desire and our lack of awareness about the nature of change.
Desire really is not the problem. It being co-opted to run the treadmill of a fixed identity is what creates the problem. Desire is just energy at the end of the day. It allows us to survive, procreate and spread our genes. The problem is we are fairly sophisticated animals and we manage to be subverted by a society built around the notion of satisfying trivial and immature wants. This is amplified by the consumerist dream of instant satisfaction being the right of each and every individual with a few quid in their pocket. So many of our values, priorities and dreams are artificial constructs inherited blindly from the society we are born into. The rest come from our families, educational experience, peers and our experiments with life. Desire feeds emotional and psychological games in the form of impulsiveness and when it becomes insatiable, desire turns into craving. That feeling of, “I’ve got to have it!” and, “I can’t live without it!”
Life is change and change is constant. How few us are really in touch with this and the fact we are ageing constantly? How few of us are extremely clear and sober of the fact we will die and that we could potentially pass away in any moment? These are the two unavoidable facts of life and yet we tend to ignore them both and avoid discussing them in any down-to-earth manner. Constant change in Buddhism is defined as impermanence. Simply put, nothing lasts. So why do we act as if it will? It’s important to add that intellectually we may believe we are clear on these topics. Rationally we may convince ourselves that death is inevitable, but it’s Ok we tell ourselves. We might feed ourselves the line that we should live for today and forget about tomorrow. Sure, it’s a strategy you can employ. What happens though when you find you’ve aged and death doesn’t seem so far away any more? How do you convince yourself then that your attempts at pushing reality away haven’t failed?
Death is the second socially taboo topic that Buddhism is grounded in. Because collectively we fear and avoid it, we kid ourselves with the belief that we are happier by doing so. Developing a deep appreciation for the finite nature of life though actually makes our lives vastly richer. By working with impermanence we begin to see directly the place of change in all aspects of our lives and how thoroughly natural it is. By loosening our grip on how we want things to be, we begin to experience more fluidity and a greater capacity to let go. This is the way of non-attachment. Not detached or distant somehow, but more present, awake and embracing of experience as it is while it lasts.
The Third Truth
Dukkha may end. That’s right. The Third Truth lets us know that we can actually learn to live differently, and radically so. We can end the complex network of interdependent patterns of psychological and emotional confusion that keep us living unconsciously. It lets us know that we can recognise the first two truths in our lives and the wider world and work with them. We can gain an adequate understanding of the importance of being conscious of the presence of Dukkha in our lives and start to change the way we live both internally and externally in order to find a door to open to a new possibility. The Third Truth lets us know that we can shake off this addictive identification with experience and learn to release the attachments we have to fixed forms and ideas in order to slowly start to see things as they are. The Third Truth lets us know that loosening up our self-obsession allows us to gain a little bit of freedom from impulsive, reactive living, and the comfort of our more self-indulgent patterns. By continuing to release our dependency on habitual patterns, we gain further and further freedom and a much richer experience of pleasure and happiness. The third truth tells us that by letting go fully of the illusion of a separate, independent self, of the striving to keep change at bay, we gain enormous freedom and begin to embark on the path of awakening.
The Fourth Truth
This is traditionally written as the path that ends Dukkha. The early schools of Buddhism emphasised the Eightfold Path as the fourth truth. Later schools invented all manner of technique and some very radical approaches to freeing oneself from addictive living. On a basic level though, anything that relieves suffering is the path. Any habit that gives us freedom from bad habits and attachments is the path. Since the Buddhist path though is one of radical transformation and the completion of the Third Truth, rather than a simple taste, or occasional holiday, it offers a complete system for working with our own personal collection of suffering, and also importantly, that contribute to the suffering of others. Yes, it turns out that shitting on other people and raping the planet does affect us directly too.
To change takes time. It requires work and discipline. Most of all it requires consistency. To break a pattern means establishing a new one to take its place, at least in the earlier phases of practice. The Fourth Truth holds at its centre the practice of meditation. This is supported, fed and sustained by the way we act, speak, use intention, and work.
It cannot be expressed enough that direct experience is what counts above all else. This is true for our own experience, relating these teachings to that experience, and for discovering the validity of much of what is written here. You must experience it for yourself. Theory, philosophy, intellectual understanding, beliefs and ideas all fall away in terms of value when compared to actually knowing the truth of your life directly.
The next post introduces the Noble Eightfold Path and the actual practices of working with the Four Truths.
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I’m wondering if starting with the First Truth is too traditional. What led the Buddha to the aesthetic lifestyle is perhaps insightful. If you assume that what you are looking for changes what you see, then it may be possible to understand what the Buddha could and could not see.
Was Gotama indoctrinated into a traditional view of reincarnation ? Was he willing to “sacrifice” this life in the hope of getting off the wheel. The stories seem to indicate that he was near suicidal – even the commitment to sit prior to reaching enlightenment seems to be in the context of a last resort.
What were the motives that pushed Gotama so hard. It was not the Four Truths.
Not sure what to say here. We have no clue as to whether a figure called Gautama actually existed so it’s all here say; especially to go as far as to speculate on what he thought or felt. If you’re happy doing that, fine, but I wouldn’t even assume to have a clue what went on in his head or heart if he existed. I will only assume that if he did exist that he was a human like the rest of us.
This piece on the four truths is a pretty old exploration that I posted in from an old blog of mine. Some of it could be revised, but as it stands it’s a reasonable exploration of a reworking of Buddhism’s foundational teaching in a post-traditional style.
Thanks for commenting,
Hi Matthew, I’ll try to be constructive and critical. Maybe you don’t want a discussion on this post? Is it correct that you are not sure if the Buddha existed or are you not sure what his name was prior to starting to teach? There seems to be a lot of material related to what someone was thinking and feeling, of course it is in the past and we don’t have an accurate picture. Given we don’t have an accurate portrait of any historical figure, how many years after the event do you typically deny their existence?
You seem to be buying into a traditional line of thought by starting at a prescribed starting point and assuming there is nothing to be gained by asking why you were told to start there. I’m probably misunderstanding what post-traditional means but I did read your intro to the term.
The post http://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/about/ lays out what is meant by Post-traditional Buddhism, but you said you’ve read that already. It’s not another reiteration of Buddhism, but rather an approach to dealing with its claims, beliefs, ethics and ideas as well as a way of re-imagining its practices within the contemporary world we each inhabit. On a personal level, it’s rooted in a desire to reclaim autonomy and build intimacy with Buddhism as a living tradition that is constantly reborn through the creation of a path built on direct experience rather than the expectations of a teacher/tradition/book, etc. It’s based on the recognition that reproducing tradition does not usually lead to Buddhism’s goals being achieved but rather to the creation of a Buddhist subject, or identification with Buddhism, even by those who are more serious and pragmatic.
Each of my texts, or series of texts, are based on me attempting to review elements of Buddhism from a different view point. I wrote the section on the Four Truths a few years back and at the time it was helpful for me to do so in order to clarify my thinking. It was not an attempt to reset, or build from Buddhism’s foundations forward. It stands alone and may or may not be successful.
I’m not really sure what your point is though in your comment above about starting at a prescribed point. Can you be clearer, or say more?
I am happy to engage in mutually beneficial debate.
Buddhism is founded around an historical (literary) figure. Whether that person existed and who he really was is not so important as the assumptions that x-Buddhism makes about what he thought and felt. From what I’ve seen most x-Buddhism starts with the Four Truths (or at least the Four Truths are foundational). This is framing the situation in a certain (traditional) way.
I think we can confidently (not absolutely) say many things about what Gautama did not think. There is a broad area of interpretation regarding what he did think.
It might be interesting to explore the motivations and perspective of the literary figure. That requires assumptions so probably impossible to draw a single valid conclusion for every type of Buddhism.
What the Buddha taught and what Gautama did were two very different things in the stories I’ve heard. Gautama is extreme in his quest and reaches enlightenment not through a middle way. He then teaches a middle way and is successful which no doubt means what he was teaching was well adapted to the culture where he was teaching.
We all see the same things Gautama saw but this does not inspire the same reactions. If Gautama is just another human then what was driving the extreme attitude (abandoning family, suicidal behaviour etc). Obviously we can’t get a certain answer but could the question be useful ?
It reminds me of another question I’d love to see explored – what would Gautama do if he was born today (and had no recollection of his previous existence) ? I imagine him growing up in a modern society and conforming to the norms for a good 20-30 years before having some sort of revolt (against what, why and how…)
So if we put up a straw man for Gautama, what might it lead to. He was convinced he was on an eternal wheel of suffering and was suffering so badly that he became suicidal. There is a history of people waking up under these types of extreme situation. He was convinced that to get off the wheel was the number one job for everyone and that the only way to do that was to abandon conventional life.
If you believe that what you are looking for changes what you see then Gautama is set up to see certain things.
The Buddha seems to have played a political role somewhat in line with x-Buddhism (don’t rock the social order). For example it seems he needed to be convinced by others to allow Bhikkhuni. He was initially driven by personal suffering – not by social justice.
I’m certainly stretching things to breaking point here and showing my ignorance. But I hope it might inspire you to answer these questions in a more intelligent way that I can!
For me it seems clear that Buddhism has many valid insights, it also seems clear that it is not the answer to every question. It would be nice if direct experience led to the same conclusions but the breadth of traditions and conclusions proves that not to be the case. So the context and intention driving the investigation into experience seem as important as the experience.
I’m guessing the Buddha was teaching in an environment where social roles and destiny were oppressing individuality, personal salvation was a revelation. Western buddhism is dealing with an almost opposite situation where individuation often trumps even family.
Maybe a 0th truth like “mind is socially constructed” would lead to a 5th truth.
Your comment is slightly confused. I shall try to make sense of it though and provide a response.
You seem to be saying that the Four Truths is an established starting point for many Buddhisms and that they develop a certain train of thought and action. You seem to be saying that they are a response to the conditions the figure of the Buddha might have found himself in at the time of his existence and there seems to be an implicit assertion that because of this they may be inadequate for the time we exist in.
My main background in Buddhism has been with the Tibetans and the Four Truths is often a secondary teaching in those contexts. I do like the Four Truths as a practical framework for understanding the human condition. Of course it is limited, of course it is a human creation, but yet, it does attempt to echo universal aspects of the human condition, rather than a contextual scenario from thousands of years ago. It’s an incredibly simple model and because of that it is necessarily limited. The mistake here would be to assume that we have some duty to make a universal change to the way Buddhism is perceived, by adding a 5th truth for example, even though that could be an interesting avenue to explore. I think that we in the West however should have free reign to experiment, reword, rethink and shape a new any aspect of Buddhism we feel inspired to, without any expectation that regular traditional Buddhist will take note.
As for making assumptions about the existence of the Buddha as an imaginary or literary figure and what he thought and what he taught, I think that is a game that Buddhists can play. I see no need to speculate on any of these things myself and no real benefit in it either, but if you like that question of yours about the Buddha being born now, why not give it a lot of thought and see what happens? If you accept a reworked idea of enlightenment as free of super human qualities, then there’s no reason not to assume that there are fellow human beings being born who are waking up and doing the best they can within the contexts they find themselves to help others reduce ignorance and suffering in their lives, or in wider society. There is no reason to assume they are Buddhist of course. Religious founders often turn out to be minor figures, or to have been ignored by most people before their followers turned them into saints and super humans, so who knows.
In the following part of your comment, are you making reference to something I wrote?
“It would be nice if direct experience led to the same conclusions but the breadth of traditions and conclusions proves that not to be the case. So the context and intention driving the investigation into experience seem as important as the experience.”
A phenomenological reading of direct experience with attention to sensorial data is much more likely to lead to better language for describing actual experience of the results of practices than the use of a tradition’s language and symbols. Being phenomenological, it has to be concerned with actual, direct experience. That’s a major point made throughout my writing and the emphasis is pragmatic. Intention, context shape experience, of course, I agree. But they do not determine the outcome. Not relying on a teacher’s confirmation is one way of ending the internal language and symbol traps of traditional Buddhism. Demanding that people explain themselves without parroting Buddha speak is another simple means for finding common grounds and potential universals. Phenomenological description ends the tyranny of traditional and teacher authority. It becomes a discipline, one you will note I am engaged in.
The world we inhabit is symbolic. The point I repeatedly make is that we have to bring all of Buddhism’s results into a western vernacular that experiments with our language and symbols and uses the most straightforward terminology we currently possess to bring clarity to the wider discussion of how Buddhism’s practices and insights might be brought to the table of human knowledge regarding flourishing, freedom and lines of human emergence that reduce human ignorance and suffering within a finite physical world and not on a mythological wheel of never ending rebirth. I agree, as the non-Buddhists are all too aware, that the individual must be brought to the collective. That Buddhism is inadequate in solving our collective suffering and instruments for entrapment and the inculcation of ignorance.
If you wish to continue this exchange, it would be helpful for me if you formulated your thoughts into questions and if possible presented one or two maximum at a time.
Thanks for you reply. I’ll try to clarify a few points, it is great you took the time to reword as I can see what I actually communicated!
“they are a response to the conditions the figure of the Buddha might have found himself in at the time of his existence and there seems to be an implicit assertion that because of this they may be inadequate for the time we exist in.”
I think the Four Truths are not a response from Gautama (the person not yet awake), they are a teaching from the Buddha (after awakening). He took insights from his awakening and communicated some of those with the Four Truths (agreed they are great insights). What Gautama was doing is very related to the conditions he found himself in. If experience influences outcome then it is worthy of consideration.
“there seems to be an implicit assertion that because of this they may be inadequate for the time we exist in.”
I don’t think the problem (if there is a problem) is related to how long ago they were formulated, more that there was a perspective which led to the investigation. For example if I spent 6 years doing nothing but practicing intense Advaita Vedanta before starting to follow Buddhist teaching it would probably have a big influence on which x-Buddhism I choose and what results I get.
I’m more familiar with Theravada Buddhism, what is the first teaching of the Tibetans ?
“The mistake here would be to assume that we have some duty to make a universal change to the way Buddhism is perceived”
I agree and I’m not making that mistake so far. It is more an exercise to explore the 4 truths than a conclusion they are wrong or need changing. I guess a post traditional approach should not take them as a given.
“I see no need to speculate on any of these things myself and no real benefit in it either”
I’ll try to make an argument for the benefit of it but I’m holding a view for discussion, not because I’m sure it is a better view.
“Buddha being born now, why not give it a lot of thought and see what happens?”
Mainly because I don’t know enough about the literary figure from a particular tradition to draw conclusions. I think someone who has a clearer model would do a much better job. But it is a question I hope to have some propositions for one day.
“If you accept a reworked idea of enlightenment as free of super human qualities”
Yes I buy into that. The word does not capture the notion of an ongoing process – I don’t buy into some sort of final state. Awakening is preferable in that sense – there is still a day to get on with after waking up!
I imagine awakening is like most human endeavours, there is a range of abilities. The Buddha stands out as exceptional. There are geniuses in most fields and they do not come along so often (of course they are a social as well as individual phenomena).
“In the following part of your comment, are you making reference to something I wrote?”
Yes, I think this is perhaps the most interesting point.
“Being phenomenological, it has to be concerned with actual, direct experience.”
This is something that x-Buddhism uses a lot. “Just follow the practise and draw your own conclusions” etc. It is something that a post traditional view needs to be on the lookout for.
“Intention, context shape experience, of course, I agree. But they do not determine the outcome.”
I’m not sure what outcome you are referring to but if you are drawing conclusions based on different experiences then the outcomes seem likely to be different.
“Phenomenological description ends the tyranny of traditional and teacher authority.”
I’m really not sure about that, on the DhO there is a real hierarchy for some people regarding who is best at describing the experience they think is central. There is a desire to conform that is not at all negligible. Pretty quickly maps come out and lines are drawn. I suspect some people start parroting Phenomenological speech as opposed to Buddha speech.
After listening to people who are happy to answer the question about what awakening is (mainly on BATGAP, Sounds True and a few pod casts) the diversity is what strikes me most. It seems clear that the “outcome” is very socially influenced.
Can you clarify what “outcome” refers to and why it would not be socially interdependent,
There are only two questions above, I hope the length is not too painful!
I think a problem here is that you are making assumptions that are not reflective of an actual state of affairs that we can see and experience. If you were to reword some of your phrases to ‘I believe…’ then I could probably find more value in them. To set aside claims of what an imaginary Gautama/Buddha (G/B) did or did not say is an axiom of non-Buddhism. It jettisons a mystical past in favour of a discussion of our world as it is now.
“I guess a post traditional approach should not take them as a given.”
Sure, and this applies to the stories about G/B.
“The word does not capture the notion of an ongoing process – I don’t buy into some sort of final state. Awakening is preferable in that sense – there is still a day to get on with after waking up!”
Take a look at my reconfiguring enlightenment post. You’ll find it makes the same claim.
“I imagine awakening is like most human endeavours, there is a range of abilities. The Buddha stands out as exceptional.”
In the stories we have of G/B, yes. In truth, we have zero knowledge of this. It’s all made up stories and endless speculation. That would be yet another x-buddhist claim to be set aside in non-Buddhism. I personally see it as nothing other than a dead end and the phrase, so what comes to mind 🙂
“This is something that x-Buddhism uses a lot. “Just follow the practise and draw your own conclusions” etc. It is something that a post traditional view needs to be on the lookout for.”
I agree, but our experience is primary in Buddhist practice. The added ‘just..’ is problematic. It’s also problematic when practice takes place in a vacuum; whether individual, a teacher/student dynamic, or a specific tradition. My point is always that your practice and experience have to open to the wider world. Have to be definable within regular language without the crutch of Buddhism or spirituality for that matter. When you liberate your subjective world from those enclosed worlds, you can allow it to be corrupted by other fields of understanding of the human condition and therefore tested. Then it’s a case of seeing whether your personal claims and experiences stand up. Another help strategy is to give up all belief that what you’re doing is special or important: the vast majority of the world couldn’t care less if you’re awakened. The issue you raised about the DO is reflective of this. It’s yet another closed group where the symbolic order is established by ‘those who know’ and within specific parameters. This is a fundamental issue in transmission. You have to work with where you are at and not an imagined goal which you squeeze into. Those act as inspiration, but the nuts and bolts of practice are ‘what’s happening right now’.
Outcomes: traditions have a narrative that students plug into. The degree to which the tradition enforces that narrative, determines and shapes the discourse that describes practice and its imagined outcomes. The greater the narrative, the more likely folks never reach the traditions goals i.e. most of Tibetan Buddhism.
All fine so far. Engaging with practices with discipline and commitment leads to unexpected outcomes though. The issue is whether they are dismissed or explained away by a teacher, or understood as the path unfolding for the individual as they establish a relationship with practice as a living phenomenon. When the path is built on experience rather than an imagined external goal, then the unexpected is par for the course and I would suggest to be embraced.
Socially dependent: if you consider ideology in the way Tom Pepper describes it, there is no escaping ideology, which would imply that all experience is socially conditioned. Socially independent would mean exploring the limits of our current symbolic/linguistic world in order to find more accurate descriptions of experience/knowledge/the world, whilst recognising that language is always symbolic and thus apart from the thing. Thought, language are socially interdependent, which is to say they do not exist without the social landscape in which we are immersed. We are always playing with the same toys, but we can play in different fields of human knowledge and see what happens when we do so. I’d suggest that that is where interesting work is taking place at present.
The relevance of all this is as follows: for enlightenment/awakening to have value, it ought to find its expression in the wider social landscape of which we are a part and not exist closed within the Buddhist world. A way I take up this challenge is to refuse to validate my own progress and insight with Buddhist language. It’s also to bridge whatever might be useful in my experience to others using straight forward language to describe practice or understanding to anybody with at least a few neurons functioning.
Hope that’s clear.
I did use phrases such as “I think” and “I’m holding a view for discussion”. I hope you don’t think that I believe I have some sort of direct connection to an ultimate truth! Feel free to prefix “I believe” in what I’m writing – my opinions will hopefully be more impermanent than I am.
I can see value in understanding the literary nature of the stories that come with Buddhist practises. I’m not convinced we should throw away knowledge of where those practises come from. Basically history is not objective facts but that does not make it worthless. Likewise taking those stories or a particular interpretation of historical events as written in stone is not a wise approach. I get an impression from you that you’ve swung for one extreme to another – first bought into a buddhist story then rejection of the utility of history.
When we explore the story as a story it can help provide context for the practises and perhaps help point out where Buddhist practises can be complimented. For me the post traditional could see the story as a story, not simply ignore the story.
Agreed with your point “My point is always that your practice and experience have to open to the wider world. Have to be definable within regular language without the crutch of Buddhism or spirituality for that matter.” This is something that I do not see happening much. People like Shinzen Young do make mention of other practises e.g. in his case mathematics and psychotherapy. He has also gone out of his way to get away from the language of buddhism.
We can put aside the question of whether the Buddha was someone and if that someone was exceptional. But today we can see people who get very different results from what appear to be very similar practises. Some people are able to have greater insights. I think it would be naive to assume that there is a level playing field in this one human endeavour when all other endeavours are clearly not on level playing fields. Perhaps a stretched analogy – we could also keep in mind that often the experts in a field are not the best teachers. The number of meditation teachers who make claim to quite extraordinary experiences at a young age is disconcerting. I’m not sure they are ideally placed to transfer knowledge to the majority of practitioners.
“When the path is built on experience rather than an imagined external goal, then the unexpected is par for the course and I would suggest to be embraced.” I think you will create your own narrative. I don’t see a way to escape narritives.
“if you consider ideology in the way Tom Pepper describes it” I like Tom’s work there, I believe I agree with it 🙂
“it ought to find its expression in the wider social landscape of which we are a part and not exist closed within the Buddhist world.” Agreed.
“A way I take up this challenge is to refuse to validate my own progress and insight with Buddhist language.” I think you are missing an opportunity. Given that the practises coming out of Buddhism are of great utility, the traditions can have some insight into those practises. If you ONLY validate your progress through a particular Buddhist sect then that would be a problem. “My point is always that your practice and experience have to open to the wider world.” that wider world includes Buddhism – you seem to be excluding it. I see it as a view that has value but as you suggest we need to validate a view with different views. This is why I see non-buddhism as complimentary with buddhism. Teachers offer another view, again not definitive but can be useful. Why not just add them into the mix of “wider social landscape” ?
We can consider knowledge from a 1st, 2nd and 3rd person perspective. If something can be validated for all three then it seems more robust.
Would you change your earlier statement “Intention, context shape experience, of course, I agree. But they do not determine the outcome.” ? It seems in contradiction with what you wrote in the last post.
These exchanges are taking up quite a bit of time and I’m super busy, so this may be my last long response. I appreciate you getting stuck into this exchange though.
I see no real value personally in entertaining the stories. I’m not suggesting all Buddhists give up on them or that they don’t hold value for Buddhists. I’m not particularly interested in reproducing Buddhism but rather in dragging the insights and meditation practices and insights about those out from under the overarching canopy of Buddhism. I don’t really consider myself a Buddhist in the traditional sense so I couldn’t really care less if the stories are real or not. There is no value in repeating them for me and you must remember that my main experience with traditional Buddhism has been with the Tibetans, not Thervada, etc, so although the classic Siddhartha story can be heard, other stories have greater importance depending on what tradition you join. I’ve done all sorts of practices over the years and done many retreats with Vispassana groups but minus the usual traditional Indian Buddhist teachings, so the Buddha story has never been central to my ‘Buddhist experience’.
I should provide a reason why that’s so important to me. I coach and mentor people here in Italy and not one of them has ever been Buddhist or at all interested in Buddhism. In fact, new coaching clients are often put off by the idea of Buddhism so early on I was forced to explain why concepts I pull from mainly Mahamudra/Dzogchen practices might be worth integrating into their existing spiritual or developmental practices using neutral language. That set me off on a sort of path in which I realised how encoded and trapped within Buddhism so much of its treasures had been and why it was essential that I explain myself minus Buddhism. It turned out to be a revelation and stimulating to say the least.
Of course a post-traditional approach sees the story as a story that should be clear from my emphasis on the mythic and symbolic. It just happens to be the case that once you see it in such a manner it may lose its value. That is certainly the case for me. I think we can find better stories, weave new symbolic realms devoid of mystical India and a distant past. Part of this connects to the point I made about opening it all up to the wider world. Those classic Indian stories get in the way as personal experience has shown me. As another example, do we need to believe or entertain the story of Jesus to explore the possibility of cultivating unconditional love? Of course we don’t. If you like Buddhist stories great, but they are obstacles if you are not involved in reproducing or teaching Buddhism.
“I think you will create your own narrative. I don’t see a way to escape narratives.”
If you understand that the self is a narrative and that awakening is in great part the liberation from that narrative, then you can start to explore narrative as a means for communicating successfully, rather than as an accurate representation of an ontologically existing thing somewhere. If you can only produce a single narrative, or reproduce the tradition’s narrative, then you are probably not as awake as you thought, or lack the sort of intelligence required to bring your personal experience to the wider world. I don’t think we create our own narratives: I think we reproduce existing narratives and push or corrupt emerging narratives. My desire is to push emerging narratives so they can more successfully liberate individuals and groups. Corrupting traditional Buddhism liberates energy and creativity and is an essential part of that process as the non-Buddhists are all too aware.
If a person has become happy and relatively free psychologically and emotionally, then there experience is what it is. If they want or feel the need to make awakening, or whatever you want to call it, of use to the wider world then they have a choice: reproduce tradition or break away from it. Very, very few people are doing the latter. Shinzen is doing his thing and he’s to be admired for his efforts. There is much more work to be done though. This blog and the podcast are my small attempts.
Hey ho, back to editing I go.
I think we are arriving at some sort of conclusion too. Your last post gives a lot more context to your stance and I think I understand your position much better, thanks.
There is a “story” about how ideas need to be confronted, one idea should “win”, for example Buddhist or not Buddhist or Non-Buddhist. Most people function in this way. It seems to be a central part to how we maintain an identity or narrative. So for example “I” become “post traditional” or adopt a “non-buddhist” position etc. This creates a duality of good and bad – stories are bad, narratives are bad, tradition is bad etc. Most often that is adopted with a modern “relative” view i.e. tradition in and of itself is not bad for other people but it is bad for me. Reinforcing identity.
We tend to present things as an “or”. Reproduce tradition or break away for it. Narratives are created or they are reproduced.
I feel something similar in the non-buddhist movement. You might remember on the DhO you read in a post of mine “complimentary” to mean “compatible”. Likewise on a non-buddhist site I wrote “critique of non-philosophy and integral philosophy” which was replied to with “Integral Theory and Non-Philosophie are incompatible”. The similarity is perhaps coincidence but it might point to something.
Perhaps I’m getting old and worn down by confrontation. Or perhaps there is a path that lets views come and go, looks for the complementarity in what others would typically see as opposing views. The concept of two opposing views both being useful without needing some “compatible” meta-view is perhaps unusual.
At the same time there is a sort of pre-trans fallacy. As the relativist position can be a way to avoid judgements, responsibility or simply being wrong. But beyond that there is an idea of truth without dogmatism. The post traditional requires the traditional.
It is hard for people to imagine that if we have something positive to say about a view we are not adopting that view and likewise that a critique is not neccessarily a rejection of a view in it’s entirety.
Maybe it is related to what Ken Wilber calls stages – that we have to fully adopt and “be” a view before we can move on past it.
Anyway back to this topic/blog. It serves a great role and I think you are certainly making a worthy contribution. If we need to “be in a view” before move past it, then there needs to be places where an alternative view is presented and maybe it is best to present it in such a way that allows one to “become a new view”. So the traditionalist can become post-traditional.
“I think we can find better stories, weave new symbolic realms devoid of mystical India and a distant past. ” Yes this is a great point. Being able to hold those stories at a distance to allow for the search of new ones makes a lot of sense. If it is successful it might create a tradition 🙂
I feel that I’ve probably diverted you for no benefit, so apologies for that. Get back on to the next blog/podcast article, we are waiting with impatience 🙂 Cheers.