By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
I’ve been reading Stephen Batchelor’s latest book, and probably his magnum opus, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (Yale, 2015).
By my standards, it’s a pretty important book. I’m reading it very slowly, deconstructing his thesis to contrast with the Pali Dharma I’ve been studying for 15 years, which is also for the most part Batchelor’s dharma as well. At 19 he entered the Dalai Lama’s monastery, studied all the different forms of Buddhism, and finally parted from it as a religious tradition. He became an atheist, and determined to develop a secular route people can take to benefit from the Buddha’s wisdom.
His book Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (Riverhead Books, 1997) was very influential. He gave many of us Westerners who studied dharma in its raw Asian version permission to practice Buddhism without having to believe in its supernatural offerings, especially the notions of karma and rebirth, holdovers from Hinduism that the early Buddhists and even most contemporary Buddhists couldn’t quite rid themselves of.
It also gave me a line I often quote, and wished-to-hell that I wrote it: Buddhism isn’t something to believe in, Buddhism is something to do.
Religious people seem to have to have the promise of an after-life in order to make it through their weary, deluded existence. But among “religious” traditions, secular Buddhism doesn’t offer that. Without all the mumbo-jumbo, Buddhism is a guide to life—an owner’s handbook for humanity—and the only peace-on-earth option that actually works. Based on the premise that life is “suffering,” Buddha offered what was basically lifestyle tips in order to achieve “the cessation of suffering” in your life.
Some of the causes of suffering are obvious. Physical pain, mental anguish, aging and being separated from loved ones are examples of suffering the Buddha recognized along with that vague dissatisfaction people have about life in general, where nobody gets everything they want, and if they do get it, it is only a temporary thing. This is the clinging and craving the Buddha tells us we need to extinguish in order to achieve the highest level of enlightenment.
But in a startling way, After Buddhism offers us a way to look at “suffering” by replacing the word with the much more descriptive reactivity. Batchelor writes:
To let go of reactivity and behold its ceasing is certainly no easy task, but at least it is something to which we can aspire, whereas the end of the suffering will remain a pipe dream for as long as we are pulsating, breathing, ingesting, digesting, defecating bodies.
He left out farting, but you get the picture.
Seeing suffering as reactivity makes perfect sense, and it came to me as an epiphany. I’ve always maintained that we choose how we feel and behave. I’ve never really been able to put my finger on it until I read Batchelor. I can only use the examples in my own life, pre- and post-dharma.
In my book I talked about the uselessness of anger by pointing out that indulging yourself in (reactive) road rage doesn’t even make logical sense: the other driver has no idea you’re pissed off at him, so, what’s the point? As an enlightened person works his way through the anger thing, you may no longer express your rage at being cut off at Exit 43, but you still feel it, so you’re still suffering, you’re still reacting. Pretty soon it doesn’t phase you at all, and your calmness, your lack of reactivity, carries the day. Maybe the guy cut you off because he has to pee really bad.
In my last article I wrote about about slipping and breaking my face on a limestone curbstone. Oops. Stupid mistake. Broke my jaw.
Even as I was kneeling in the street spitting blood and teeth, I determined that I was going to be a man about this. A Marine. A Buddhist.
I made myself stay calm, not complain about the pain, and endured with equanimity the months of treatment I needed in order to turn my face back into a face (you know, a round one, and not the trapezoid I was left with after my accident). No big deal, I kept telling myself, no big deal. This is a temporary thing. I went out of my way to be pleasant to my wife, who, after the ordeal, said that I was very “Buddhist” about the whole thing. I kept the reactive part in check and I suffered less for it. So did my wife.
I’d been meditating for years in preparation for this event. Let’s see if this mental strength thing really works. Yeah, well, it does. It’s a part of being Buddhist, and a part of being a tough guy. Of course my Marine training helped get me through it, too. So did marijuana. And after three months of “suffering,” I got my old face back.
Every opportunity to suffer is an opportunity to choose how you are going to react. Every opportunity to relieve the suffering of others is an opportunity to make someone, and yourself, happier.
Batchelor poses what I would consider to be the most important question of all:
Is it still possible to recover a pre-orthodox dharma, and build upon that foundation an adequate ethical, contemplative, and philosophical practice that would optimize human flourishing in a secular age?
How about training educators in the use of contemplative space as an alternative to detention? That would be as good a place to start as any.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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