De-Ossifying Buddhism

There’s a story about Mara, Buddhism’s smart and tricky demon, walking with an assistant, who sees a man finding something on the ground and becoming joyful. The assistant asks Mara the meaning of what he has seen. Mara replies: “He has found a truth.”

“Aren’t you worried about that?” the assistant asks.

“No,” says Mara, “before long humans will turn the truth into a belief.”

[Thanks to Bite-size Dharma for the story.]

Stephen Batchelor Selfie
Stephen Batchelor

I thought of that story after reading an interview with Stephen Batchelor in Tricycle magazine online. The prolific Batchelor’s most recent book is After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, and his other books include Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith in Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. No one has done more to develop what has come to be known as Secular Buddhism.

Buddhism, like Christianity, grew from the inspiration of a great teacher, a holy human being, by which I mean one worthy of profound devotion. In both cases, the teachings were not written down for generations. Jesus spoke mostly Aramaic,  and the New Testament was written mostly in Greek and then translated and refined for centuries.

There is no certainty about the language Siddhartha spoke, but he lived 400 or 500 hundred years before Jesus did, and in a place of many local dialects. Most of his teachings (sutras) were not recorded for centuries, and then most were written in Pali, a language not used today except for religious study and chanting.

Christian denominations differ in some of the wording and emphasize different parts of the New Testament, but they all recognize its basic structure. There is no equivalent collection of the Buddha’s teachings that serves all Buddhist sects. Each of the various branches of Buddhism gives prominence to certain sutras and collections of sutras.

So getting back to the story about Mara, we humans, being who we are, have taken the truths spoken by Jesus and Siddhartha and turned them into beliefs. We’ve had centuries to do that and to ossify our beliefs. Growing up in a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, I turned to Buddhism in part to get away from the ossification I saw all around me — substituting ritual for virtue, deifying a man who denied being a god, creating hierarchies, judging others, and so on.

Although I remain devoted to what I see as the core teachings of the Buddha, it was not long before I saw some of the same ossification in many Buddhist sects. And that’s where Secular Buddhism comes in.

Many Christian scholars have used various means to determine what Jesus really said. Thomas Jefferson tried it with reason, razor and glue. More recently, the Jesus Seminar and other groups have used historical research and linguistics.

Batchelor takes a unique approach. The Buddha developed his teachings at a time of spiritual foment in his region. He studied with many great pre-Hindu teachers before what tradition describes as his awakening under the bodhi tree. Batchelor attempts to separate out the commonly held beliefs of the time to determine what truths Siddhartha was expressing for himself.

I’m not ready to call myself a Secular Buddhist. I’m too much of a contrarian to label myself before I know more. But I am sure that Buddhism needs more of what Batchelor is doing.

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

8 Comments Add yours

  1. vellissima says:

    When Buddhism left India, it syncretized with the animistic and shamanistic beliefs that were compatible with it. That’s how we make sense of things – by viewing them through the lens we already have. I’m with you, I don’t want to label myself, but I find Buddhist philosophy compelling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      If the stories of the Buddha’s life are correct, he himself wandered over many lands at a time of great geopolitical fragmentation. A smart preacher will, of course, tailor his message to his flock. So it’s interesting that Batchelor chooses to look for what’s core.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. vellissima says:

        There is both tailoring the message to the flock,and the selective hearing of said flock. As they say, every reading is a misreading.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. kaptonok says:

    There is a site called ‘Atheists for Jesus’ along the secular lines you advocate. Belief systems prevent the necessity for thought but we need them to make life simpler. Its what the law does lays down guide lines.
    What speed would you drive at with no rules?
    Unfortunately belief systems can over – rule free judgement and create a fixed immovable mind set.
    The reason is our evolutionary.baggage tribal members must focus on there own tribe. Survival of the fittest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      I don’t mean to secularize Buddhism. I wish the movement had another name. But I would like to trim it down to its essence.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. MF says:

    Great opening story. Most people who are really looking for truth are, fortunately, not looking for agreement from others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      Thanks for that. Good way to see the difference between truth and belief.


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