Stephen Batchelor visions a secular dharma


Stephen Batchelor discusses a secular dharma based upon his interpretation of the historical Buddha’s teachings found in the Pāli Canon. I think he does a fantastic job of condensing the main topics more deeply expounded upon in his terrific new book, After Buddhism, which I highly recommend. Stephen does have some very thoughtful comments about the conflictual issues of secular mindfulness and corporate mindfulness in the Q&A found toward the end.

New Dharma talk on right view available for free download

I have uploaded the mp3 recording of the dharma talk I gave at IMSB on Right View:
Download in iTunes podcasts:

The first path factor of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path is right view, also known as wise understanding. Though right view is the first of the Eightfold path factors, it represents the fruition of the succeeding seven path factors. Right view and right intention (the second path factor) together encompass supreme training in wisdom; a training designed to awaken the faculty of penetrative understanding—that which knows things as they truly are. The Buddha defined right view as understanding dukkha—the inherent unsatisfactoriness of all experience—its origin, cessation and the path leading to its cessation. He also defined right view as wisely comprehending Dependent Origination—the Buddha’s topology of mind and the cognitive-affective perceptual mechanisms that cause us to misapprehend self and world as separate, autonomous and permanent. The Buddha taught that wrong view is the greatest source of unwholesome mind states and by extension, unwholesome decisions and behaviors. The fruition of right view is a heart-mind liberated from avidyā, the delusion of suffering.

Is awakening clinically relevant? Part One of my dialogue with David Vago

David Vago, PhD and I recently recorded two rich and informative conversations focused on translating the Buddhist psychological conceptualization of “enlightenment” into modern clinical terms. David is currently involved in cutting edge neurobiological research on the awakened mind states that arise during various meditative practices. This first part of our two-part conversation covered the following topics: contextualizing the terms enlightenment, awakening, liberation; demarcating clinical markers of progress on the path; Nirvana and mini-nirvanas; state vs trait changes of awakening; extinction of mental and emotional habits; dissolving greed, hatred and delusion; pure awareness or nature of mind; the inherent problems of quick fix mindfulness. Please enjoy! Part Two will be available in a week or two.

David Vago, PhD is an associate psychologist in the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory (FNL), Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and instructor at Harvard Medical School. David has previously held the position of Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind & Life Institute and is currently a Mind and Life Fellow. David’s research interests broadly focus on utilizing translational models to identify and characterize neurobiological substrates mediating psychopathology, to better predict outcomes and potential biologically-based diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for those suffering with mental illness. David has been specifically investigating brain networks supporting self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence in order to clarify adaptive mind-brain-body interactions and their therapeutic relevance in psychiatric disorders.

An mp3 audio version of this discussion is available at

Meditation/mindfulness is not an all-curing antidote

Yesterday I saw a post for an article on meditation and anger with a title so unfortunate, it moved me to click on the link. Turned out the article was composed in 1997 by psychiatrist Mark Epstein, a renowned author on Buddhist psychology. It began, “If you are angry and you meditate to get rid of your anger, you will only frustrate yourself. Meditate because you are angry, not to eliminate it.” I was immediately struck by Mark’s accurate understanding of the purpose of meditation. And then I felt a wave of sadness—for we live in a time where meditation/mindfulness is now widely misconstrued as an all-curing antidote.

Some of you may think that because Buddhist philosophy/psychology considers liberative insight the ultimate cure for all forms of suffering, the vehicle for achieving liberative insight (meditation) must be, by association, a cure-all. This is a common, yet incorrect inference. Four weeks after the Buddha’s awakening, he delivered his first discourse, which included an explication of suffering, its causes, cessation and an Eightfold method to achieve non-suffering. Only one quarter of that methodology involved meditative practice. So the Buddha deliberately chose in his first and most celebrated discourse to establish wise understanding of the causes of suffering and non-suffering—not teach meditation.

The truth is meditation alone will not liberate the mind from conditioned suffering. The ultimate liberator is the acquisition of the unconventional knowledge of impermanence, suffering and not-self—what is known in Buddhist philosophy as the Three Marks of Existence. This knowledge leads to wise understanding of the insights that arise from liberative meditative and non-meditative experiences. Yet, the vast majority of clinical and non-clinical applications of mindfulness teach meditation devoid of the unconventional teachings on suffering, impermanence, and not-self.

Let me be absolutely clear on this point. Noticing how thoughts come and go and/or how much time we mentally spend in the past and future, cultivating self-love/forgiveness/compassion, recognizing that basic physical pain is worsened by mental anguish about painful stimuli—all these insights are healing and will decrease symptomatic suffering.

However, Buddhist psychology is ultimately disinterested in relief of symptomatic suffering because non-suffering is an outcome of the fearless pursuit of non-delusion. That pursuit includes the recognition of and liberation from the root causes of human suffering—our deluded belief in a substantive, separate self and our deluded belief that happiness is conditioned upon comfort, certainty and security (all of which are ultimately unachievable because all phenomena are impermanent, entropic and uncertain.)

If you think meditation alone will ‘cure’ the deleterious characteristics of humanness, like anger, violence, greed, hatred, fear and bias—think again. These qualities arise from our collective belief in subject/object dualism. The reality that all phenomena (including the illusory separate self) interdependently co-arise must be taught; for wise understanding is not a predetermined outcome of meditative practice. This is why ‘Buddhist-derived’ mindfulness meditation practices when taught for greater happiness and/or symptomatic healing produce meditators who remain unaware of the root causes of harming and non-harming, executives/CEO’s/politicians who continue to exploit and cheat, and military professionals who remain capable of following or giving orders to harm other human beings.

So what am I suggesting is missing in the delivery of clinical mindfulness? Well, let’s return to anger. Anger is a phenomenon that can be experienced directly. No matter how powerful and uncontrollable it may seem, anger is just a fleeting emotion with the capacity to awaken us to difficult truths about self and world. One can shrink from this kind of engagement with anger and be overtaken by harmful expression of anger. Or one can embrace wise, compassionate inquiry into angry feelings and learn to navigate them skillfully. Clinical mindfulness and compassion interventions are designed to elicit this kind of inquiry, especially when delivered in psychotherapeutic contexts. However, most clinicians who use mindfulness interventions don’t deepen the dialogue to include examination of the fundamental causes of angry states of mind, primarily because they do not possess the requisite knowledge to enable such inquiries.

To those who say it is unwieldy or impractical to impart the unconventional truths of suffering and non-suffering in clinical contexts, I say, I do it every day with my patients and they appreciate it tremendously. When they have moments of relief from internal distress, I jump at the chance to help them inquire beyond momentary relief into impermanence, not-self and the fundamental causes of human suffering. And I don’t do this by asking them to close their eyes and meditate. We dialogue and use specific exercises to experience negative and positive self-fixation, to know the palpable difference between mentation about experience (delusion) and embodied presence in experience (non-delusion).

Meditation is undoubtedly a vehicle for insights about mind and its contents. But without a context of unconventional truth, how can a meditator know the profound ramifications of such insights? I invite you to contemplate this question for yourself, especially if you are involved in delivering mindfulness interventions in psychotherapeutic contexts. It may lead you to expand your current knowledge of Buddhist psychology beyond mindfulness.

Here is the link to Mark Epstein’s article.

Mindfulness-based interventions are secular Buddhism?

This weekend I had an interesting email exchange with a person who identifies as a “secular Buddhist”, which seems like a redundant term, because in my life practicing Buddhism has never included religiosity of any kind. None of my teachers have ever asked me to believe anything. Instead I have always been encouraged to investigate and see for myself through contemplative research and textual study. This person is also an MBSR teacher and implied that MBSR is a form of secular Buddhism. Below are a sampling of my comments on that topic.

MBSR is a clinical intervention targeted at shifting symptoms and/or perception of symptoms of stress and physical pain. That is what I call relief from symptomatic suffering. The Buddhist teachings and Buddhist psychology are specific methodologies for awakening out of ignorance through direct recognition of emptiness, not-self. It would not matter how long an MBSR class lasted. There would never be any instruction in ethical conduct, teachings on emptiness or the nature of mind, or any mention of “the deathless”, the unconditioned. The idea that any MBI delivers this profound knowledge without mentioning it directly is preposterous and yet this is what Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have been claiming in scholarly articles since 2003. Jon goes so far to say that MBSR teaches the Buddhadharma… Only the Buddhadharma teaches Buddhadharma.

Buddhist philosophy of mind is very complex and profound and mindfulness is not the core of the Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness is merely a tool for recognizing emptiness (Mahāyāna), the deathless (Theravada), the clear light nature of mind (Vajrayāna)… but emptiness must be pointed to in order to recognize it.

The concept of liberation in Western Buddhism has been skewed by our culture’s attachment to self-entitlement, self-cherishing, and demands for individual comfort, security and continual pleasure. This is why liberation from suffering in the West is equated with less negative thoughts. Honestly, that is not the liberation of mind the Buddha was offering.

This is precisely why I authored a textbook on Buddhist psychology for mental health clinicians. One that teaches the actual dharma, with no compromises and detailed instructions on how to deliver interventions in the therapy room for awakening out of the suffering of ignorance, rather than just symptom reduction or achieving greater levels of conditioned happiness.

And I am not so keen on the idea of a “mindfulness movement”. Heroin addicts are very mindful when they prepare their kit and shoot up. Thieves are very mindful when they engage in robbery. The bulk of the Buddha’s teachings are on ethical conduct and philosophy of mind. Not on mindfulness meditation. And the meditation practices were not designed to make the practitioner feel good. The extreme result of this wrong view of liberation is McMindfulness—the mass marketing of mindfulness as a cure-all for everything or a path to greater happiness, wealth and security.

The Buddha complains of back pain and other physical maladies after his enlightenment. He was human being with a human body. Enlightenment does not mean the end of physical pain. It means recognizing the empty nature of all phenomena including the body, which dissolves any self-fixated afflictive mentation about phenomena. There is nothing to cling to… including the idea that the body must be free of disease and decay and death.

Human ignorance is primordial and deeply etched in our genetic code. Awakening to primordial wisdom takes commitment, study and practice.