Should Buddhism Be Secular?

Or Could We, on the Other Hand, See Every Moment of Life as Religious?

American Nirvana by Adam Gopnik.  The New Yorker Magazine, August 7 & 14, 2017.

I don’t know at what moment I realized that the goofy little practice that I stumbled into at my wife’s insistence in 1991, surrounded by a bunch of misfits in the basement of a building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had gone mainstream.  Was it when the word mindfulness had become a kind of buzzword (like Zen, the practice that my earlier one has morphed into), so that you see it not only in yoga magazines, but in women’s magazines, business magazines, Time magazine?  Was it when there was a new magazine actually titled Mindfulness (after you print the Satipatthana Sutta, what do you write about?)?  If not either of those things, it was certainly when I was leafing through the New Yorker, and found in the table of contents the words that I’ve used for my title, as a come-on for an article written by none other than Adam Gopnik, my own personal favorite among the New Yorker writers.  I’m almost always interested in the subjects he takes up, and find him a helpful and interesting guide. Now he’s discovered Insight Meditation?

The occasion, apparently, is a book by science writer Robert Wright in which he talks about his own experience of the practice.  I haven’t read the book (though I did read a recent article by Wright in the Wall Street Journal), and know only what Gopnik tells me, but Wright apparently has a regular practice of sitting and has gone on retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, my old stomping grounds.  He reports that the practice makes him feel better.  And I don’t intend any sarcasm when I say I think that’s great.  It makes me feel better too.

Gopnik says that Wright sees the center of meditation to be the discovery that our thoughts are not “who we are,” but just a random load of crap created by our conditioning and flying through our heads constantly.  We don’t have to believe our thoughts.  We don’t have to act on them.  We can just watch them, with mild amusement.  They’re not us.

I don’t in any way diminish that as an insight.  No less an authority than Eckhart Tolle calls that “awakening,” and it is certainly one of the important things we realize as we sit.  But I’m a little uneasy at calling that understanding the heart of meditation.  I’m even more uncomfortable at the idea of meditating because it makes you feel better.  This great tradition that is centuries old becomes one more feel good technique, just as yoga has been entirely secularized.  It’s something you do after your yoga and spin classes.  Spend a little time with your meditation app, and you’re ready for your dating app (and your booze ap).

It turns out that Gopnik himself has been meditating, with guided meditations by Joseph Goldstein, not a bad guy to start with, and has apparently, as Gopnik will do, started reading around on the subject.  What interests him is this question of whether mindfulness meditation is really a religious practice, or if it can just be done in a secular way.

He thereby happened upon Stephen Batchelor, a man who has been heading in the secular direction for years, with books like Buddhism Without Beliefs, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, and now After Buddhism (the man is running out of titles.  His next book will be, After Post Buddhism).  When, some years ago, a magazine raised the (rather boring) question of whether you can be a Buddhist without “believing” in rebirth, they called on Batchelor to argue the positive side.  Robert Thurman took the negative.

I’m with Batchelor on that one.  In fact, what my teacher Larry Rosenberg taught us about the whole subject of beliefs was the Buddha’s famous teaching the Kalama Sutta, in which he said not to believe anything unless you know, by your own experience, that it is true.  If I’ve experienced rebirth I don’t remember it.  So I’m not saying it’s true, and I’m not saying it’s not.

But Gopnik makes me uneasy when he equates Batchelor’s opinion with that of a science writer who has only recently discovered meditation practice.  Batchelor has done severe monastic practice, and when he talks about Buddhism being or not being a religion he knows whereof he speaks.  People don’t have to agree with him to see he is a serious man.

What Batchelor is trying to do, it seems to me, it to take away the stale trappings of religion, the things we’re supposed to believe, and look at what the Buddha actually said, and what he advised.  The Buddha left home and became a renunciate because he was facing the most deeply religious question of all, what Zen calls the Great Matter of Life and Death: if life ends in death, what is the point of living?  Apparently, on the night he sat under the Bodhi tree, he found some answer to that question.  What he taught for the rest of his life was not a verbal answer (he resolutely refused to answer any such questions) but a way of living that would lead to the answer.  You could call that way of living—which he outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta—the way of mindfulness.  But it isn’t a way to make you feel good.  It’s a way of facing the deepest questions of human existence.

I think that sitting meditation—the practice that I believe the Buddha was doing under the Bodhi tree, what we used to call pure vipassana, what Zen calls shikantaza—is the most religious act there is, a human being sitting in silence with what is.  The Buddha’s ultimate teaching is that all of life can be like that, every moment, every act.  But for me that doesn’t mean that Buddhist practice is secular.  It means that every moment of life is religious.

In a way it comes to the same thing, and it doesn’t matter what you call it.  We discover that every moment of life is sacred.  Robert Wright is headed there, whether he knows it or not.