Mindfulness Embraces Suffering

‘The aim of mindfulness is to know suffering fully. It entails paying calm, unflinching attention to whatever impacts the organism, be it the song of a lark or the scream of a child, the bubbling of a playful idea or a twinge in the lower back. You attend not just to the outward stimuli themselves, but equally to your inward reactions to them. You do not condemn what you see as your failings or applaud what you regard as success. You notice things come, you notice them go. Over time, the practice becomes less a self-conscious exercise in meditation done at fixed periods each day and more a sensibility that infuses one’s awareness at all times.

Mindfulness can have a sobering effect on the restless, jittery psyche. The stiller and more focused it becomes, the more I am able to peer into the sources of my febrile reactivity, to catch the first stirring of hatred before it overwhelms me with loathing and spite, to observe with ironic detachment the conceited babbling of the ego, to notice at its inception the self-determining story that could tip me into depression.

And I am not the only one that suffers. You suffer too. Every sentient creature suffers. When my self is no longer the all-consuming preoccupation it once was, when I see it as one narrative thread among myriad others, when I understand it to be as contingent and transient as anything else, then the barrier that separates “me” from “not me” begins to crumble. The conviction of being a closed cell of self is not only delusive but anesthetic. It numbs me to the suffering of the world. To embrace suffering culminates in greater empathy, the capacity to feel what it is like for the other to suffer, which is the ground for unsentimental compassion and love.’

- Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

I am free! I cling no more!
Liberation is mine! –
The greatest clinging
Is to cling like this.
—  The Buddhist teacher and philosopher, Nagarjuna. I’ve been studying his work The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) recently, which essentially is a dialectical process in the direction of enlightenment which teases the mind completely out of thought. For an easily accessible introduction to Nagarjuna’s philosophy read “Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime” by Stephen Batchelor. There’s also some great downloadable audio talks by Zoketsu Norman Fischer over at Everyday Zen on the subject.
Awakening is not a state but a process: an ethical way of life and commitment that enables human flourishing. As such, it is no longer the exclusive preserve of enlightened teachers or accomplished yogis. Likewise, nirvana—the stopping of craving—is not the goal of the path but its very source. For human flourishing first stirs in that clear, bright, empty space where neurotic self-centredness realizes that it has no ground at all to stand on. One is then freed to pour forth like sunlight.

Stephen Batchelor 

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review


‘The Buddha’s freedom is not found in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.’

- Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

The Four Noble Truths are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. They suggest a course of action to be followed rather than a set of dogmas to be believed. The four truths are prescriptions for behavior rather than descriptions of reality. The Buddha compares himself to a doctor who offers a course of therapeutic treatment to heal one’s ills. To embark on such a therapy is not designed to bring one any closer to ‘the Truth’ but to enable one’s life to flourish here and now, hopefully leaving a legacy that will continue to have beneficial repercussions after one’s death.
—  Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

In the naked glimpse of another’s face, we encounter both a fear of and yearning for intimacy. A core paradox of human existence is that we are inescapably alone and at the same time inescapably a participant in a world with others. While we long for intimacy in order to dispel loneliness, we resist it because it threatens to interrupt our privacy. Just as Mara prompts us to flee the overwhelming contingency of our birth and death to the safety of an isolated self, so he urges us to flee the disruptive impact that intimacy might have upon such a self. And just as Buddha’s wisdom springs from focusing attention unwaveringly upon the turbulent flux of contingency, so his compassion springs from returning the intimate gaze of the other that implores you not to hurt her.

If flight is a retreat from intimacy, then fixation on one’s self and one’s obsessions is a way of denying it. Rather than opening to another, you close down behind a frozen gaze and expression so as not to betray insecurity or fear. Even as she speaks to you, concern with how you appear outweighs your attention to what she says. The poses and disguises we assume to make an impression on others conceal our ambivalence as to who we are. Rather than confront the unfathomable question of our existence, we seal ourselves in the membrane of a story that we know only sketches our surface. As long as we can convince ourselves and others of the reliability and value of this narrative, we feel safe.

—  Stephen Batchelor, Living with the Devil
Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.
For life to make sense it needs purpose. Even if our aim in life is to be totally in the here and now, free from past conditions and any idea of a goal to be reached, we still have a clear purpose, without which life would be meaningless. A purpose is formed of words and images. And we can no more step out of our language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies.
—  Stephen Batchelor
On “Buddhism Without Beliefs”

‘Instead of being the noncontentious introduction to Buddhism that was initially conceived, “Buddhism without Beliefs” triggered what Time magazine, in its cover issue on Buddhism in America, called “a civil but ferociously felt argument” about whether it was necessary for Buddhists to believe in karma and rebirth. I had proposed in the book that one could hold an agnostic position on these points, i.e., keep an open mind without either affirming or denying them. Naively perhaps, I had not anticipated the furor that this suggestion would create.

The ensuing controversy showed that Buddhists could be as fervent and irrational in their views about karma and rebirth as Christians and Muslims could be in their convictions about the existence of God. For some Western converts, Buddhism became a substitute religion every bit as inflexible and intolerant as the religions they rejected before becoming Buddhists. I argued that Buddhism was not so much a creedal religion as a broad culture of awakening that, throughout its history, had shown a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions. For a while I hoped that “Buddhism without Beliefs” might stimulate more public debate and enquiry among Buddhists about these issues, but this dis not happen. Instead, it revealed a fault line in the nascent Western Buddhist community between traditionalists, for whom such doctrines are nonnegotiable truths, and liberals, like myself, who tend to see them more as contingent products of historical circumstance.

What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted? I suppose some of it has to do with the fear of death, the terror that you and your loved ones will disappear and become nothing. But I suspect that for such people, the world as presented to their senses and reason appears intrinsically inadequate, incapable of explaining this fraught and brief life on earth. One assumes the existence of hidden forces that lie deep beneath the surface of the contingent and untrustworthy world of day-to-day experience. Many Buddhists would argue that to jettison belief in the law of karma - a scheme of moral bookkeeping mysteriously inhering within the structure of reality itself - would be tantamount to removing the foundations of ethics. Good acts would not be rewarded and evil deeds not punished. Theists have said exactly the same about the consequences of abandoning belief in God and the divine judgment.’

- Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

Compassion is not devoid of discernment and courage. Just as we need the courage to respond to the anguish of others, so we need the discernment to know our limitations and the ability to say ‘no’. A compassionate life is one in which our resources are used to optimum effect. Just as we need to know when and how to give ourselves fully to a task, so we need to know when and how to stop and rest.
—  Stephen Batchelor
The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable.
—  Stephen Batchelor, “Buddhism Without Beliefs.”  
In order to really engage creatively and meaningfully in drawing from different traditions we first need to be grounded in one. If we establish the foundation, then we have a great opportunity to bring in other elements and approaches as a way of refining our practice to meet our individual and social needs. So there are two things: the first is to be grounded in one tradition, and the second is to keep sight of one’s own needs and questions. It is very easy to become fascinated by all the diverse philosophies, practices, and so on and lose sight of the fact that you are no longer addressing your primary concerns.

Stephen Batchelor, in Inquiring Mind, Fall 2002 (Vol 19, #1)

Adding to a comment I made to you Terry earlier, and deeply relevant at this moment.

Buddhism: A Humanized Religion

‘The concepts, dogmas, and symbols of Buddhism have meaning only in relation to the life of man. All the practices of Buddhism are simply ways of actualizing the potentialities of human existence that dwell within us here and now. Buddha is nothing but the optimum mode of being possible for man in his present condition. It is only through remaining firmly within this human context that a meaningful unalienated perspective can be gained with regard to the Buddhist teachings. The true spirit of Buddhism is that of a humanized religion. Every central event in its history is characterized by a resurgence of this humanistic spirit as a countercurrent to the tendency towards idealization. Its very inception was marked by Shakyamuni’s total rejection of the then current Brahmanical hypostatization of the essence of man (atman) into an entity subsisting independently of the body and mind. His original teachings stressed that the aim of spiritual life is achieved through constant mindfulness of the psycho-physical constituents of man, and not through speculative inquiry concerned with either a divine absolute or a self, which are essentially alien from the concrete reality of human existence. The emergence of the Mahayana schools was likewise a reaction against the over-emphasis on the isolated quietude of nirvana in which the Arhat remained inaccessible to and remote from others. By stressing the ideal of the Bodhisattva, the thrust of Buddhism was again placed in the concrete sphere of human existence. So much that Chandrakirti remarks that the Bodhisattva’s joy upon hearing a cry for help exceeds even the nirvanic bliss of the Arhat.

However, the Mahayana traditions also succumbed to the tendency toward idealization. Largely because of their preoccupation with speculative metaphysics, the Buddha and even the Bodhisattvas were imagined as radiant ethereal beings exerting their quasi-divine influence as invisible spectators of, rather than living participants in, the human drama. Once again the goal and meaning of spiritual life become more and more remote and unreachable. However, through the emergence of Tantrism in India and Tibet, and Ch’an (Zen) in China and Japan, Buddhism was reestablished in the dimensions of concrete human existence. A principal feature of the Tantric teachings is that Buddha is identified with one’s own human spiritual teacher. And to further emphasize this point that Buddahood is a concrete mode of human being, and not an inaccessible ideal, the realized Siddha is often portrayed as living the most humble and ordinary existence. For example, Saraha was an arrowmaker, Tilopa a beggar, and Marpa a farmer. Similar accounts abound in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism. The enlightened Zen Master is typified as someone who frequently exaggerates the quirks, the ambiguities and the contradictions of everyday life. To conceive of Buddha as an idealized state of being standing in any way outside the sphere of actual human existence is regarded as anathema. Such attitudes are condemned in the most forceful language: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”’

- Stephen Batchelor: Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism.

We could decide simply to remain absorbed in the mysterious, unformed, free-play of reality. This would be the choice of the mystic who seeks to extinguish himself in God or Nirvana - analogous perhaps to the tendency among artists to obliterate themselves with alcohol or opiates. But if we value our participation in a shared reality in which it makes sense to make sense, then such self-abnegation would deny a central element of our humanity: the need to speak and act, to share our experience with others.
—  Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs. Today in the Great River.
So what would be the features of an ‘agnostic Buddhist?’ Such a person would not regard the Dharma as a source of ‘answers’ to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He or she would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuro-science etc. An agnostic Buddhist would therefore not be a ‘believer’ with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense would not be ‘religious.’ An agnostic Buddhist would look to the Dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation. He or she would start by facing up to the primacy of anguish and uncertainty (dukkha), then proceed to apply a set of practices to understand the human dilemma and work towards a resolution. An agnostic Buddhist would eschew atheism as much as theism, and would be as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. (For to deny either God or meaning is surely just the antithesis of affirming them.) Yet such an agnostic stance would not be based on disinterest. It would be founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It would confront the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief. It would strip away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here at all.
—  Stephen Batchelor