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Buddhism is a term inclusive of the teachings and practices of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha or “enlightened one”, from the 5th century BCE in the Indian subcontinent. There are two major branches of traditional Buddhism: Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”), with new development of non-traditional secular forms in contemporary society. Within each of the classic branches are many further distinct categories, including schools like Zen, Vajrayana, and others.
With few exceptions, Buddhist traditions share the premise outlined in the Four Noble Truths as a core teaching:
- We are often dissatisfied with our experiences in life.
- This dissatisfaction is conditioned by our lack of understanding, which can lead us to unhealthy craving.
- There can be a cessation of this dissatisfaction.
- That cessation can be nurtured by a practice we can do ourselves.
On the surface, these concepts are often misinterpreted as being analogous to other religious ideological stances, rather than coming from experiences all people can have and see for themselves. Even a light examination into many of the concepts described in Buddhism reveals how conducive they are to empirical investigation:
- We find that things and processes are subject to change, nothing is permanent. Even the universe is expected to come to a close.
- We’re subject to cause and effect, and our actions have an impact not just on our lives, but on others as well.
- When we want things to be different than they are, we can experience dissatisfaction: having what we don’t want, not having what we do want.
- We’re not able to stop change or things happening outside of our control, but we can change how we respond to them.
- There are specific skills that can be developed to attenuate our craving for things to be different than they are.
Through an intentional practice, we can develop the skills we need to loosen our attachments, with a resulting lessening of our dissatisfaction and a more beneficial experience with moment by moment living. This practice can be done by anyone, and is not dependent on any ideological views or supernatural assertions. That process of development is known traditionally as the Eightfold Path, which is divided into three main sections:
- Wisdom — we need to know how things work to fix the problem
- Ethical Behavior — choosing more beneficial social interactions has more beneficial results
- Mental Development — we can practice beneficial mind states, improving our ongoing experiences in life
Each of those sections has two or more components of an eminently pragmatic nature, completing the eightfold scope of skillful ideas and practices.
Note that there can be many ways to interpret these foundational aspects of the Buddhist path, and what follows is simply one way of expressing them in alignment with a Spiritual Naturalist point of view.
1. Understanding — There are two aspects of skillful understanding, the first is the recursive inclusion of the Four Noble Truths. That is, the last of the four truths refers to the eightfold path, and the first of the eightfold path refers to the four truths. Such tying of these ideas together may seem redundant, but really attests to the criticality of understanding the problem at hand as an important step in seeking ways to address it.
The second aspect of skillful understanding is that of karma, or “volitional action”, which was a significant departure from the predominant view of the Brahmin religion of Gotama’s time. Rather that being seen as a ritualistic purification of one’s spiritual self by a religiously sanctified intermediary, karma was instead altered to be self empowered pragmatic action to impact one’s life.
As we can see in the world, our actions lead to outcomes. Gotama suggested the critical factor in cause and effect was the ethical quality of our intentional actions, and that such actions would come to fruition in like ways. Seen from the naturalist perspective, words and deeds and even mental states of kindness and compassion tend to have more beneficial results than their negative counterparts, and these effects in turn condition further results.
2. Intention — In keeping with Gotama’s idea of the key role played by intent on the quality of what we say and do, the second part of Wisdom is around the kinds of skillful intention more likely to produce beneficial results. Primarily, Buddhism encourages a less grasping and more generous attitude, positive intent or good will, and a transparent interest in not causing harm. Note that these are not empty admonishments, but demonstrable factors that can create the conditions of a better life.
3. Speech — Perhaps the most challenging steps on the Buddhist path is the first aspect of ethical behavior, that of skillful speech. The most coarse examples of this are speaking truthfully, in ways that foster harmony, with gentleness, and in a constructive and open fashion rather than less constructive ways like gossip.
This is not limited to the spoken word, however, and can mean any means through which we communicate, including the written word, body language, and our very expressions. We should also endeavor to initiate communication when our intention is positive, and do our best to select the right time to speak. The acronym THINK, standing for is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind, is a good rule of thumb.
4. Action — The second component to ethical behavior is around our physical acts, building on the theme of positive intent. Again, we see guidance to take no actions that have a reasonable expectation of harmful results. Generous actions rather than taking what is not given or outright theft is also encouraged, as is careful consideration in our sexual engagements.
5. Livelihood — The third aspect of ethical behavior pertains to how we make a living, suggesting that we not use the constraints of working in a particular role as an excuse for not adhering to the ideals of leading a constructive and beneficial life. Of course there is a much greater diversity of careers in today’s world than in Gotama’s time, and one should consider the results of one’s job with a critical eye of Skillful Intention as a guide.
6. Effort — The first element of mental development is that of skillful effort around the kinds of mind states we foster, both positive and negative. On the negative side, we should do our best to prevent the arising of new negative states of mind, and abandon those that have already arisen. On the positive side, fostering the arising of new positive states of mind and the maintenance of those already in place is encouraged.
It is important to remember that this really does take effort, that it’s a challenging practice we need to continually refresh. The Eightfold Path is a path of significant resistance, on the part of our own mind!
7. Mindfulness — Second in the triad of mental development is mindfulness, a practice that is getting a great deal of attention in our culture due in large part to the efforts of researchers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who are studying mindfulness in a therapeutic context. Though there are a very wide variety of ways to interpret mindfulness, in classical Buddhism it remains a pragmatic exploration of non-judgmental awareness of our bodies, our initial positive and negative and neutral reactions to that which we encounter, our mental states, and various (and sometimes exhaustive) lists of phenomenon.
Mindfulness is most often associated with insight meditation, though is certainly not limited to the confines of the meditation cushion. With practice, such observation can help us loosen habit patterns and give us more mental room in the flurry of the present moment’s distractions, which helps us make better decisions for the benefit of ourselves and others.
8. Concentration — The third part to mental development is that of concentration, traditionally associated with various stages of meditative skill. Rather than the wide and expansive awareness of mindfulness, concentration meditation focuses on a single object. This can lead to experiencing a mind free from less helpful mental states centered on greed, ill will, unskillful doubt, lack of energy, and unhelpful musings about the past and future. Instead, we can experience more helpful mental stages of great joy and equanimity, which are much more conducive to creating positive change. Concentration is not separate from mindfulness, but is also an attentive practice for the mind on a narrow rather than wide range.
These steps on the Buddhist Eightfold Path should not be taken as sequential, but should all be practiced as foundational skills the development of which leads to living a more constructive and beneficial life for us and those around us. This is pivotal to the transformation of our contemporary society, and the future of humanity.
Written by Ted Meissner for the Spiritual Naturalist Society
Meditation 101, Daniel Strain
A Secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor
What am I doing? (book excerpt: Zen & the Art of Consciousness | video: Living without Free Will), Susan Blackmore
Buddhism and Naturalism, Jay Forrest
A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma & Rebirth, Daniel Strain
The Seven Stages of Meditation, Ray Rawles’ summary of book by Ajahn Brahm
Deep Ecology – Radical Dharma, Guhyapati
Organization: Secular Buddhist Association