Stephen Batchelor: Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World contains twenty-five years of his writing. You may be familiar with some of these articles from his contributions to Tricycle and I recently enjoyed reading his article arguing for a Buddhism 2.0 in a Buddhist academic journal. This book contains three new contributions, making the book worthwhile, even for those readers who have read all the other Batchelor essays.
After reading–really consuming–his previous book After Buddhism, I was delighted and astonished to learn of this new title being released. How could he have written another book after the masterful magnum opus that was After Buddhism in such a short period of time? I was relieved to find out that Secular Buddhism was a compilation of mostly previously published essays. Batchelor was human after all!
The first chapter is a poetic reflection on Bachelor’s influences–rendered as conversations. These include, surprising appearances from St. Augustine and the philosopher Fuerbach. Such conversations help Batchelor to articulate a secular vision of the Buddha’s radical pedagogical project.
After reading his 2015 tome, After Buddhism, this introductory chapter offers new material and I find that I never tire of Stephen Batchelor’s insights and the articulate manner in which he presents them.
Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human. Rather an devoutly repeating what as been said many times before, your risk expressing your understanding in your own own stammering voice. (2017, 24)
In his essay, “An Aesthetic of Emptiness” (written specifically for Secular Buddhism), Batchelor describes his artistic discipline of making collages from discarded objects such as paper, cloth, and plastic. These objects are best when distressed by the vicissitudes of physical existence, such as being trampled by foot traffic on the street. This distress, then, become a metaphor for dukkha–the decay, dissatisfaction, and distress of material existence. Human beings are no exception.
As with all of Stephen Batchelor’s work, the writing throughout is gorgeous, even as it spans the decades marking the evolution of his thinking.
Secular Buddhism has something to offer everyone. For already existing Stephen Batchelor fans there is enough new material to engage and expand the conversations initiated in Buddhism without Beliefs and After Buddhism. As well, it is a pleasure to revisit older pieces. For soon-to-be Batchelor fans, this book is an accessible way to gain a broad view of his positions on secular Buddhism.
For me, the final section on Art and Imagination, was especially satisfying and inspired the following thoughts. Batchelor points to the commonalities of the artist facing creation and the meditator facing the present. Each confront a moment of uncertainty and both can shy away from the task.
The creative call for both parties is to create something original, true, and courageous. The product for the artist is more obvious, but for the meditator the product and its attainment are more subtle. What does it mean to have an original moment?
To approach this, one must set aside preconceptions, whether one’s own or those imported from a belief system (e.g., dogma). To be original in the moment requires relinquishing the known for a new impression. To accomplish this originary moment is impeded at every step by the instinct of categorical perception and a lifetime of established learning. It may not even be possible to suspend categorization completely (neural beings can’t do that). However, it might be plausible to approach it in a relative fashion.
Stephen Batchelor argues that the contemplative experience is aesthetic, not strictly a cognitive-behavioral-affective affair. This raises the possibility that every moment of existence could be a creative act, not merely derivative and subordinated to existing knowledge. The fact that most moments of a life are not aesthetic—in the sense of being creatively original—demonstrates the deadening power of categories.
We lose sight of the fact that poet Renee Chard pointed to when he said that “every moment is virgin, even the repeated ones.” I agree with Batchelor that the artist and the meditator aim for that kind of startling yet hard won freshness. Such perception both effort and letting go in almost the same moment.
The effort is like straining to keep an aperture of attention open long enough that thoughts to do not close prematurely. The letting go is like Rilke’s swan falling into the water where everything that used to confirm us on solid ground are now lost in weightless free fall. To continue this image, the arms work to hold open a space into which the body allows itself to fall, letting gravity pull attention into an uncertain and, perhaps, terrifying abyss. Yet, at the very same time, that abyss has a familiar quality to it, almost as if it were the home one has been estranged from, exiled by excessive thinking.
The wish for safety makes this falling terrible. The realization that there is no such thing as safety makes it wonderful, enlivening, and confirming. That confirmation is a paradox: by recognizing that no solid ground exists one is grounded all the same. It is only be embracing impermanence that any semblance of heart is preserved. It is only through becoming psychologically homeless that one returns from exile.
The late Galway Kinnel said, “Poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.” Likewise, E. H. Gombrich said, “It takes an artist to make us attend to the message of reality” (cited in Batchelor, 2017, 224).
A clever demonstration of originality is no guarantee of the truth that poetry and art can reveal. For both the meditator and the artist, the relinquishment of preexisting knowledge goes hand-in-hand with a renunciation of self-centeredness. It is not me who does the creation; me is the creation, the embodiment of the creative process itself.
Both artist or the meditator can succumb to the tendency to say, “Look at me! See how clever I am.” In meditation, self-aggrandizing always seems to occur in those moments when the primordial opens up and awareness falls through the aperture only to find itself being named and attention yanked back into the personified, languaged, and already characterized identity.
Stephen Batchelor, I have learned, is the embodiment of lifelong conversation between art and meditation–living an awakened life through the aesthetic appreciation of each moment. Life is art and art is life.
All Our Waves are Water: Stumbling Towards Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride is the latest book from my friend, dharma brother, and workshop collaborator Jaimal Yogis. This books picks up where his first book, the touching, profound and compelling coming of age story, Saltwater Buddha leaves off.
All Our Waves takes the reader through heartbreak, love, ambition, and the search for spiritual truth. It is a raw, funny, and honest account of the struggles to live an awakened life.
I was fortunate to read an early draft of the work, and I wrote these words of endorsement:
Jaimal’s journeys in All Our Waves Are Water speaks to all of our sojourns through loss, self-discovery, and an earnest attempt to awaken. Like Saltwater Buddha, this book is a privileged view into the life of a true seeker, a contemporary bodhisattva living and loving in the world. It’s an ode to water, to the primal and playful art of surfing. Jaimal is a great storyteller and he captivates us with a his deeply personal tales of being a flesh and blood and thought and emotion creature working to bring more wisdom to his life and light to the world. It’s all there, attachment and craving right alongside renunciation and revelation. This book takes the reader from the Himalayas to Mexico to Israel to New York City to Bali and the inner city of San Francisco. The events of each place reveal a rhythm of humanity and divinity as seamless and natural as the in-breath and the out-breath.
All Our Waves is available for pre-order now and will be out July 4th.
I am awed by Jaimal’s storytelling prowess and the great stories that he has lived in his young life. He inspires me to be a better writer and his beautiful writing is part of the reason I have decided to pursue an MFA in creative nonfiction at Bennington College.
In the meantime, Jaimal and I continue to teach the dharma together, using the metaphor of the ocean for coping with the impermanence of life. We had a great one-day training at Spirit Rock Meditation this past January and we are looking forward to teaching again at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health this April from the 16th to the 21st. You can register for this program now and join us for a heartfelt week of mindfulness, meditation, and exploring the truth of our experiences.
Moved by his writing and our work together, I have crafted this poem named after Saltwater Buddha the book and the documentary film (available now!) that starts with my consciousness of landscape here in northern Vermont and the Green Mountains, Adirondacks, and Lake Champlain. It then goes to the actual and metaphoric sea that lives in imagination and takes us into the vastness of the world. Meanwhile, I pay homage to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Too Many Names.”
Over time, I forget the wide expanse of this inland sea.
These old mountains shrink in memory to quaint images
and then surprise me with their worn yet formidable heights
stirring me out of the complacency of dog-eared stories
if only for an instant before I am swallowed again.
200 miles to the east and 3000 to the west the oceans live.
I can only recall their lurching green expanses from memory
their incessant movement that is actually not movement at all
I try to make sense of their rhythms pounding out the story of time
I try to get my head around their confident embrace of infinity.
I am exiled from the vast open presence until I see the mountains
breathing into sky and the water disappearing at the edge of the world
I am a stranger to this world until I imagine the earth’s forbidding core
and the 50 million miles of wiring in my brain stretching halfway to the sun
I am refugee wandering surfaces until I realize the atom’s endless space.
I dissolve myself into the dark waters of the sea, merging
as if I am not just part of that landscape but its breathing tissue
and dying to the possibility, I yield to the beating heart of the night
riding the waves as if I am a surfer sitting with legs crossed
breathing one thought, one action, one gesture of time.
I am a saltwater Buddha, woven into the fabric of stars, dust, and space
smiling under the hot sun I sweat salt back to the breathing sea that
beckons me to relinquish stories, to ride its ripples of unity and multiplicity.
a conversation where words vanish into darkness and light and I
find the still point that lives between each wave to arrive home.
May you find peace, solace, and meaning in all the waves that comprise your life and may you arrive home within yourself in this vast universe.
If there is ever any doubt about life’s impermanence, mud season starting in February erases it. Our dirt roads are rutted, the snows are melting, and flooding in some areas is an imminent threat. This isn’t supposed to happen until April.
Yesterday, I neglected to bring my phone with me on the walk. Thus, I couldn’t take pictures of some very interesting subject matter that were emerging from the thaw. I walked the same route to capture them today, and found that impermanence had done its work–they were all gone.
I had especially wished to capture the image of a large formation of icicles that were clinging to a boulder that, as they melted, had a waterfall running underneath them. That rock was clear today. The moment gone.
Of course, photography gives us a skewed view of impermanence–as if we could actually capture reality and pin it down for a time. I got the above photo instead, the last of the icicles returning to the earth. I’ve been taking a lot of photographs lately and posting to Instagram. Follow me on Instagram >>
I’ve been teaching a lot lately–four workshops in a stretch of just over a month–from California to Connecticut. I made the bold claim that Donald Trump is our dharma teacher. The Trump administration didn’t invent political impermanence with all its uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt but they certainly have made it more obvious.
Trump embodies what the Buddha taught we should not do if we want to be peaceful and sustainably happy. Greed. Check. Hatred. Check. Overblown belief in self. Check. DJT is an anti-role model. As a recent op-ed by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times has pointed out, he’s also made good on his promise to make America great again by mobilizing activism, increasing interest in the free press, and even boosting ratings on SNL.
The Dakini Speaks is a poem about impermanence and how we are not entitled to anything but that. The Dakini knows that “impermanence is life’s only promise and she keeps it with a ruthless impeccability.” You can link to this powerful poem on Jennifer Wellwood’s website.
The alternative to entitlement is gratitude. For each moment that something untoward does not happen, we can celebrate. Imagine if the news was un-news, reporting all the things that didn’t happen today. The natural disasters, murders, and mishaps.
Good news today: For the 22,778th day in a row since Nagasaki on 6 August 1945, a nuclear weapon was not exploded on a population.
Our negativity bias, tends to focus on what is wrong instead of what it not wrong. Gratitude helps us to reverse this trend and keep sight of the pernicious effects of entitlement. In any moment, some thing can happen to any one. There are no exceptions.
My poem Anicca is the Pali word for impermanence. I’ve been reciting this poem as well at my workshops:
It was there and then not there.
It came and went
It was never here in the way
that we hoped
It was a wave then a particle
Then a wave then gone or
Going at least.
Expanding until it vanishes
and the end is the beginning
Who am I in this cosmic expanse?
No one. No thing.
My dust is the same dust form the beginning
That bowling ball that exploded into everything
When I forget that, I think I am important
That the universe needs me to persist.
I forgot, too, that I am expanding into nothingness.
My breathing shows me how this is so.
When I pay close enough attention
It is always different if
Decaying and renewing and
Moving along an invisible line toward the future.
I want to fix this moment
Freeze it in time
Fuse it to myself
I know this is futile
Today I am 50 years old
Yesterday I was seven
Tomorrow I will be fogging my breath on a pane of cold glass
writing my elegy with the tip of my finger
I add all the moments for some calculus of worthiness,
It doesn’t register; doesn’t add up.
I have forgotten most of these moments
Although they live in the landscape of now,
Making up the soil and the water.
Most of the rest were only images,
conjured, glimpsed, and fleeting
They evaporate into time and become dreams
The remaining remembered and real
Have lost their footing and like Neruda’s time,
Walk barefoot through darkness and illumination – Arnie Kozak
President Trump does not appear to have the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, or he just doesn’t care to. For him, truth is whatever he says it is. The New York Times recently published a sobering piece on the falsehoods promulgated in his first week in office.
Trump might be an extreme and very public example of a process that we are all vulnerable to. It’s called emotional reasoning. The “logic” of emotional reasoning goes like this: If I feel something strongly enough, it must be true.
For Trump, he felt the energy of the crowds at the inauguration and he believes he is important, historic, and popular and these feelings conspire to become a belief that he had larger crowds than President Obama. The photographic evidence that contradicts this belief is irrelevant because feelings prevail.
Yet, simply because it “feels” true, doesn’t mean that it is true. In the world of post-truth, false news, and alternative facts the formula feeling=true may be more acceptable but no less dangerous.
Likewise, in the Times piece he says that lots of other people “feel” the same way he does about losing the popular vote due to illegal immigrant voting. Again, no evidence other than his feelings exists to support this claim.
In psychology, emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion–a glitch in the mind’s operating system that biases reality. They are almost always implicated in anxiety, depression, or other mental afflictions, but here in the body politic, it is being used as a tool for influence.
This doesn’t explain all of Trump’s falsehoods. He might not be subject to emotional reasoning at all since he could just be lying but I don’t want to speculate on his motives.
Trump, his followers, and the public at large do not seem to understand that opinions are not facts, which is not all that surprising, if still dismaying. This country suffers from scientific illiteracy, poor critical thinking skills, and a lack of epistemological development–the capacity to, among other things, distinguish between facts and fiction. The education system teaches students what to think and not how to think
I wonder if mindfulness can help? We can think of mindfulness as integral to the personal quest for truth. That is, by practicing mindfulness we seek to cut through the distortions of the mind to have a more accurate picture of reality, one not as tainted by the biases of the mind.
But the utility of mindfulness is a hopeful conceit on my part. I’d bet money that Trump will never practice it and his supporters are not the mindfulness demographic. Instead, I’ll continue to use my own mindfulness practice to help to cope with whatever is happening (and you can too!).
Of course, uncertainty is always the case. The new administration ratchets up the uncertainty–they don’t create it.