Secular Buddhism for Macdonald’s Time

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STEPHEN BATCHELOR — AFTER BUDDHISM — YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, NEW HAVEN & LONDON — 2015

Who am I to tell Stephen Batchelor what to think? I discovered Buddha in 1961 or 62 when I equally read the Bible, Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Buddha, Marc and Engels, Lenin and even a little bit of Mao Zedong, not to speak of many other things and works like books on mathematical logic and building technology. At the time the Quran was not on my personal syllabus.

Buddhism never was a religion for me because for me a religion is attached to the concept of God or some supreme being and the immortality of the soul. Over the northern entrance of the cathedral in Clermont Ferrand the French Revolution has left an inscription I would translate: “The French people believe in the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.” That makes Robespierre’s republicanism a religion for me and it was celebrated in more blood, equally blue and red, than necessary to sanctify e sectarian concept that was nothing but the rejection of another. I have always refused such silly dilemmas, either/or, it-is/it-is-not, half-empty-glass/half-full-glass (which is not better than empty-glass/full-glass, even if it is in the balanced middle point). Buddha did not invent the pragmatic dual approach he rejects. That dualism has been in the air of Homo Sapiens since the apparition of vegetal and animal life on earth enslaved to the day or night dualism that cannot be modified. Buddha rejects it as being in contradiction with real life and he is looking for a solution and thinks he found it in the middle way often reduced to a point of balance between the two elements of the dualism we are talking of. Buddha tried to invent or discover a third element in the choices we are confronted to everyday and a dual vision of such choices is a reduction of Buddhism.

But before getting into more detail let me say I am afraid Batchelor falls in the trap “high five” and “full speed” with oppositions like Buddha/Mara, good/evil or life/death. If Buddha states Mara to satisfy the dominant ideology of his time it is to dismiss it because of the third element he states over and over again: the real world. And the real world is in no way one: it is a whole and infinite set of multiple and multifarious contradictions.

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Connected Buddhism

In fact, I found in Buddhism in these old times (1961–62, high school times) a philosophy that stated continuity and I have later discovered this continuity from one polar extreme to another is based on discontinuity in all possible terms. That’s what is for me central in Buddhism, not two elements in fact but three (at least, and I would say three in real life and four in mental life). It is for me the starting point of any approach to Buddhism that does not want to lose itself into sectarianism: “Anicca-Dukkha-Anatta.” “ANICCA.” Everything changes all the time (and if something seems stable it’s because we can’t or don’t want to see it change or see its changing). “DUKKHA.” Life is a cyclical spiral, birth-life-death-rebirth, not in the superficial form of reincarnation but in the natural form of seed-plant-flower-seed and for human beings — or all animals — it is obvious “rebirth” is double: the human seed (male and female conjoined) produces a new human being and the mental seed of a human being produces a continuation beyond their death in other human beings. I will not discuss the reincarnation ideology because it is nothing but an ideology to satisfy a social vision and ambition (to set every individual in a place that makes these individuals manageable, dominatable, controllable, etc.). “ANATTA.” The third concept is that since everything and everyone changes there is no stable essence to anything or anyone, hence no self, no soul, nothing that can be associated to any living being from birth to death or even rebirth. Even genetics would not say a human being is the genetic direct reproduction of their fathers or mothers. Every human being is the haphazard association of two real potentials, half from the mother and half from the father and no one can predict the result. Modern science wants to control the result but it cannot control the process itself, only modify it or influence it. And in fact it is the genetic heritage of the mother since the beginning of humanity and the genetic heritage of the father since the beginning of humanity that are carried by the mother and the father that are mixed in a haphazard way at conception. And that mixed heritage only determines the trajectory of the growth of the individual without determining for absolutely sure what will come out of this process of growth, a never ending process from {one half plus one half plus mutations} to death.

That is my first point. I do not start from the same starting block as Stephen Batchelor. He centers his work on what he calls the four tasks. First to comprehend “dukkha.” Then to let go of the arising of “tanha” he calls reactivity. Then to behold the ceasing of “tanha.” Finally, the cultivation of the eightfold path. This process leads to the arising of illumination about things previously unknown. This is for him enlightenment, hence “nibbana,” that he calls “nirvana” using the Sanskrit word. And strangely enough he more or less locks up this approach with a long attempt to demonstrate that Buddha himself, who he calls Gotama, was a pragmatist and as such refused any orthodoxy, any set of concepts that could not move. And that’s just what I consider Batchelor’s mistake. This question is fundamental. What did Gotama discover when he walked into his city and saw the sick man, the dying man, the poor man (by the way men not women, so has it the canon)? Did he only see the suffering of these people or did he capture the idea that no matter what, one has to go through a constantly changing process that may make one sick, make one die or make one poor. Note the canon does not consider that life may make one healthy, make one live or make one rich. The discovery is not in “dukkha” as plain suffering but “dukkha” as a cyclical change that may — we could have an argument on that may some want to see as “will” or “shall” — lead to sickness, death or poverty. The real discovery is not “dukkha” as suffering but “dukkha” as change. The basic concept is “anicca,” change, constant permanent change, impermanence as some translators say. If you start from “dukkha” seen as suffering then you come to “tanha” (reactivity as Batchelor calls it) which is an attachment to something, anything that attracts your attention and brings pleasure for a short while at least and the attempt to freeze that pleasure into long lasting pleasure, which is absurd and impossible because it tries to prevent change and that is beyond pragmatic realism.

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The King there is quasi divine

That leads me to an important remark. Batchelor wants to recapture Gotama and the people around him in their historical dimension and reality. He suggests a few ideas that are interesting but based essentially on direct comparison and very few facts. If a historian wants to reconstruct a period of the past, he cannot be satisfied with considering some documents and in these documents similarities. One has to consider absolutely all documents avaialable from the concerned period and to look for the differences in these documents because the meaning of these documents, hence the meaning of the historical period come from the differences and not the similarities. The similarities give some indication on what is accepted by all but that is not the meaning of the various documents. It is only the common denominator. What makes the value of various fractions with a common denominator is not the common denominator but the numerator. The fractions 25/198 and 37/198 is not in the possible analysis, decomposition and scrutinization of the denominator but in the numerator that says one is bigger than the other. At the same time this work is historically interesting but as for the value of Buddhism in the modern world it has absolutely no impact, no utility. It is not because Buddha was a pragmatist that I have to be a pragmatist. I have to be a pragmatist because that’s the only way to survive in any human world. But then what is original in Buddhism that I can implement in the modern world? Then we have to consider the concepts.

That’s why I start from “anicca/dukkha” because this cyclical reality (and it is reality not fiction) leads to the second reality in the desire of any individual to stop the first one and to stop it at a moment of pleasure because of the attachment, excessive attachment to that particular moment of pleasure and that is called “tanha” not in its reactive dimension because man is a reactive being and reactivity is fundamentally human and cannot be negated without negating humanity itself, but in its excessiveness, excessive reactivity and I prefer excessive attachment. Loving flowers is a reactive attitude or stance but it is not reprehensive or dangerous if it is not excessive, whereas excessive attachment to flowers can become dangerous to the individual who reaches that level of reactivity. I taught this difference in Pidurangala, Sri Lanka, to my students there in the monastery: you can love anything or anyone as long as your love does not become excessive attachment or obsession. You can love a person in many ways but if that love becomes obsessional then you are a slave and since your freedom is negated you will not be able to be reactive to change and you will run into the wall head first since you will not be able to adapt to new conditions.

The front guard of orthodoxy

Buddhism is a philosophy of constant permanent change or impermanence. That’s the real core of this philosophy: permanent impermanence. You add to this the cyclical nature of this impermanence and you get to the obvious premise that one has no self, anything or anybody has no permanent essence. And that builds up “anicca-dukkha-anatta.” “Tanha” (excessive attachment) is the perversion of this first reality, the attempt to stop this reality, to freeze real life, hence to negate life itself.

The next and fundamental problem — and Batchelor does not understand it at all because he is not a linguist — is the connection between the mind and language, or I should say the physiological-senses-brain, the mind and language. The five physiological senses work in connection with the brain which is a physiological organ. But this activity produces in the brain the need to construct a virtual level that is the mind and this mind cannot be constructed if language, words first of all are not associated to the sensations turned into perceptions by the brain. The mind and language build each other at the same time, simultaneously, in a parallel evolution. This is essential and after Bertrand Russell’s work on the mind and what came then from the fields of biology and psychology, including non-clinical psychiatry, we have to come to a chain of actions that build human civilization. These actions are “to-sense/to-perceive/to-name/to-experiment/to-speculate/to-conceptualize.” Most animals would only sense and perceive, maybe identify without any name, hence only instinctively as positive or negative, friendly or dangerous, etc. Human beings (and a few hominins before them and the top hominids have the ability to articulate consonants and vowels in a growing perspective from the hominids to Homo Sapiens seen as the top hominin. That ability enables Homo Sapiens to name things, both items and processes, and thus to build a lexicon and a syntax. It is this ability that leads to experimenting and speculating, and that brings the mind and the language of humans to the level of conceptualization which is a slow process through which each individual has to go because it is in no way in the genes of the individual though the capability to articulate vowels and consonants is physiological. Language is not physiological though it cannot be built — or acquired — without this physiological capability contained in the articulatory system, the brain and particularly the Broca area that coordinates all sensori-motor activities of man.

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They also serve in many ways

Batchelor has not fully explored this concept of a middle way. When he says meditation can only develop if you have the mental ability to develop a vision and the technical ability to enter a meditative procedure that will enable your meditation to reach the mental vision that is in you. He is probably pragmatic on the question but when he says the proper way to look at the problem is to find some balance between the two somewhere at a middle point between zero and the maximum for each of the two requirements, he is wrong because every individual has to develop both his meditative technique and his mental vision to the maximum possible for them. No balance but maximum and maximum though each individual will have their own maximums that will vary from one individual to the next. You can have the technique and the vision and yet that will not produce any productive meditation if there is not a third element which is called motivation or desire to attain something. If you do not implement the procedure with a strong enough motivation it will produce nothing. Before to advance on that path you have to ignite the engine of it, and the engine is your desire/motivation to take that path.

That’s fundamental in human mental abilities. It is basic in linguistic processes knowing that linguistic processes are the constructs of the joint work of sensorial capabilities, articulatory capabilities and cerebral capabilities that produce mental abilities, knowing that a capability is a given and an ability is a construct. Anyone has the capability to develop a vision. Anyone has the capability to concentrate into a meditative state. But if each individual does not develop these capabilities to produce the ability to conceptualize, to bring together the two thanks to their motivation, they will never be able to meditate in any effective way, to enter and proceed on the eightfold path, on the path to mental liberation and creativity. It is obvious I do not want to enter any technical level in this field because it would lead us too far. Linguistics is a very complex and even complicated science full of debates and contradictions.

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No God and yet they pray or recite mantras

To conclude on the point, the middle way is not some static equilibrium point between two extremes. It is the stepping over the limitations of both the visionary capability and the meditative technique with the third dimension of motivation and what some call in the Pali dhammapada the onepointedness, the desire, will and power to have one objective and to try and reach it, that objective being of course impermanent, changing all the time not in all possible directions but in depth and transcending development, at times, and only at times corrective modifications.

But this onepointedness applied to the visionary capability and the meditative technique is what we call today conceptualization. All human beings are able to conceptualize, though not all of them at the same level, but this conceptualization runs into some difficulties. First the visionary capability in analyzing and synthesizing reality in a pragmatic and realistic way. Second the technical capability to see forms, patterns, structures in the vast totality of what people have analyzed and synthesized, what I consider to be the “samsaric” whole from which some patterns, gestalts can emerge when the meditating individual is trying to get a full picture, and one tool for this to happen is the proper control and use of language. Third the motivation of each individual to get on that path and strive to go on and on along it in spite of difficulties and traps.

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The light is inside your mind/heart

This is to say this book that calls for a realistic and pragmatic implementation of basic concepts and procedures contained in a reevaluated version of Buddhism to produce a secular guide to life is essential. We — I mean the whole humanity — has to retrieve and reprieve Buddhism from all orthodox reductions, no matter which or what or where from. The very concept of Dalai Lama is an absurdity. Even the Catholics know that the Pope is not the reincarnation of Peter by God’s decision but the choice of a set of human beings who vote for the next Pope in a procedure that is materially and pragmatically determined, governed and controlled. If we captured Buddhism as a philosophy that can be of great use in the modern world, we could really improve our future. Otherwise we would and will lock ourselves in some mental prison that will lead to all kinds of evil effects including war of course.

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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Self captioned

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Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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