A Secular Buddhism: Navigating the Winds of Change

Do not chase after what is gone,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be,
For the past has been left behind,
And the future cannot be reached.

Those states that are before you now
— Have insight into every one!
Invincibly, unshakably,
Know that well, again and again.
–– Majjhima Nikaya 131-3; trans. A. Olendzki

Circa 1992, a small group of us, who were gradually beginning to experience the transformational effects of Buddhist teachings, had the idea to bring these more fully into our lives and directly into our Upper Valley community. We’d been going to meditation retreats at the then-new Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, so we reached out to the guiding teacher there at the time for help. That teacher, Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia, has the remarkable gift of making these ancient teachings easily accessible and directly relevant to our times.

Taraniya is a Pali language word, which means “bridge,” and so she was for us.  She came once or twice a year to teach a weekend retreat. As this was happening, we realized that to really live the wisdom we were coming to understand, we needed to integrate this material even more fully into our daily lives. We started sitting groups and study groups; and over time Valley Insight Meditation Society (VIMS) emerged and evolved into a flourishing Buddhist–rooted community. We have gradually recognized that we are not a “religion” in the Western sense of the word, any more than the ancient Greek Stoics or contemporary Humanists were. Like those groups, we abide by and experiment with an empirically based ethical direction, a philosophy that is geared towards helping us individually and collectively to live in harmony with one another and with our changing times. We study and practice from the basic early texts and from the offerings of the lay and monastic Buddhist scholars of our time, in order to apply the teachings to our own lives. Ours is what is being labeled a “secular Buddhism,” with secular here referring to its meaning “for this time.” We are not at all doctrinal in our approach though we rely primarily on the early Buddhist and Theravada teachings.

We are part of an international Buddhist Insight Network (BIN), and there are a growing number of such groups. Our approach to the teachings is a small part of a much larger influx of Buddhist thought into our modern culture. You are probably aware of the huge and rapid growth and interest in Buddhist teachings and meditation practices. The teachings are reaching people in hospitals, schools, businesses, prisons, and most institutions in our world. They are being incorporated and disseminated via the Worldwide Web. I suspect that this is related to the unprecedented, exponential rate of change in our world today.

According to many authorities, we have entered a new era, which is being called The Age of Exponentials. Tom Friedman in his excellent book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, documents this ever-accelerating change in three areas: 1) Technology: where Moore’s Law has correctly predicted that “the speed and power of microchips – that is, computational processing power – would double roughly every year, which he later updated to every two years, for only slightly more money with each new generation. Moore’s law has held up close to that pattern for fifty years”; 2) The Market: where the acceleration in “global flows of commerce, credit, social networks, and connectivity generally are weaving markets, media, central banks, companies, schools, communities, and individuals more tightly together than ever . . .  making the world . . . more interdependent – everyone is now more vulnerable to the actions of anyone anywhere”; 3) Mother Nature: which “is my shorthand for climate change, population growth, and biodiversity loss – all of which have also been accelerating” exponentially.

This book is helping me to see life in 2017 more clearly, and to see it from the attitude suggested by Ajahn Sumedho: “Oh, this is what’s happening now.”

In the “Perspectives” section of this Sunday’s Valley News (August 6, 2017), Steve Nelson writes an opinion piece titled “The Real Danger in the Trump Era,” which suggests that the root of our current political turmoil and stagnation can be found ”not so much from the disenchantment and disenfranchisement of working folks in the heartland,” but in a resistance to and a “resentment over a rapidly changing world.”  He writes, “What they [those resisting change] have in common is an aggressive longing for familiarity. They want predictability in life. . . . It is fear of the loss of ‘the way things are supposed to be.'”

I think we all know the reality and pain of that resistance in our own personal lives and affairs. I do. Change is difficult for all human beings. And yet, in spite of all our longings for it to be otherwise, we know that we must all, at some point, be separated from everyone and everything dear to us. At times, we have to be with that which we do not want and do not like. This is the very situation that Buddhist teachings address, and fortunately, they give specific guidance about how to manage the uncomfortable elements of our lives. According to the scientists cited in Tom Friedman’s book, we are at a point in time where the changes in Technology, The Market, and Mother Nature may be becoming greater than our minds’ and hearts’ abilities to cope with them. I think that Buddhist understanding of the way reality works, along with the meditation practices, may well give humans the tools we need to advance in our ongoing evolution as a species and flourish in this Era of Exponentials.

The very basic Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths (sometimes understood as the Four Ennobling Tasks) offers a possible direction for us when our very foundations seem like they have begun crumbling. My friend Tony Bernard, a gifted secular Dharma teacher, explains the Truths this way:  (Tony’s original wording is in bold.)

1) Bad stuff happens including unwanted and painful change.  2) We usually make it worse. You can expect this: resistance and reactivity are human tendencies built into our nervous systems and not your personal fault. 3) Don’t make it worse! This is our overall intention and the basis of Buddhist ethics.  4) Here’s how to not make it worse (eight ways):

1. Be realistic. Work to be objective; reduce the tendency to “take things personally”.
2. Be smart, not ‘real.’ Pause and remember your intention to not make things worse before acting on the first, most immediate inner impulse.
3-5.  Through speech, action and livelihood, don’t make it worse!
6. It takes practice to change our habits; be forgiving and consistent in your efforts.
7. Pay attention to how things are in every given moment.
8. Stabilize your mind and your heart through regular meditation practice.
Maybe this simple teaching and these words from the Buddha (Dhammapada verse 348) hold a key, or a promise – a possible bridge – as we move further and further into The Age of Accelerations:

Let go of the past.
Let go of the future.
Let go of the present.
With a heart that is free
Cross over to that shore
Which is beyond suffering.

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