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Leigh Brasington Buddha’s Teachings on Right View
Leigh Brasington – May 23-25

Understanding is the First Step: Right View is the first practice in the Noble Eightfold Path. This course will examine the Buddha’s teachings on Right View and Wrong View to better understand this very important topic. The weekend will primarily be textual study, looking closely at various suttas. Please click here for more information.

April 15, 2014 full moon

Natural Buddhism

By Gil Fronsdal

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Note: This article was developed from one of 20 presentations made at the BCBS conference on secular Buddhism held in March of 2013. Gil Fronsdal is the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California; he has been teaching since 1990. He has practiced Zen and Vipassanā in the U.S. and Asia since 1975. He was a Theravada monk in Burma in 1985, was ordained as a Soto Zen priest in 1982, and in 1995 received Dharma Transmission from Mel Weitsman. He received a PhD in Religious Studies from Stanford University, and is the author of The Issue at Hand, essays on mindfulness practice; A Monastery Within; a translation of The Dhammapada, and still-to-be published translation of the Atthakavagga, the subject of this article.
 
While I am happy to be attending a conference on secular Buddhism, I do not identify with the label. My, perhaps idiosyncratic, understanding of secularism sees “secular Buddhism” as somewhat oxymoronic. Instead, I prefer the term “natural Buddhism.” I use this expression for understanding and practicing Buddhism without relying on supernatural explanations; i.e., on beliefs that fall outside of the laws of nature as we know them.

By relying on a naturalistic approach to Buddhism, I am not claiming that what could be called supernatural is not real or true. While some day we may have natural explanations for such phenomena, for now, I see no need to include them in the Buddhism I practice.

Beliefs found in Buddhism that could be called supernatural are rebirth, the working of karma over multiple lifetimes, heavens and hells, devas and Māras, miracles, merit and merit transfer, and many of the psychic powers mentioned in Buddhist texts (e.g., walking through walls, flying, and talking with gods.)

None of my Buddhist teachers in either the West and in Asia required me to have faith in unverified beliefs. Instead, they instructed me to be deeply aware of my experience, including what beliefs I was holding. In fact, I suspect the deep questioning of my views and beliefs that they expected would have been inhibited by believing in what is supernatural.

Because the earliest surviving texts of Indian Buddhism include many teachings free of supernatural ideas, I believe “natural Buddhism” can be considered an equally valid form of Buddhism as “supernatural Buddhism”, the predominant form we have today. An early text that supports a naturalistic approach to Buddhism is The Book of Eights (Atthakavagga), a text some scholars consider to have been composed earlier than most of the other early Buddhist discourses. As the fourth book in the Sutta Nipata in the Khuddaka Nikāya, The Book of Eights provides a foundation of teachings that does not rely on any ideology or supernatural beliefs; in fact, depending on doctrines of any type is seen as problematic in this Buddhist text. For example, not only is belief in rebirth not required, the text discourages any concern with future lives or wish for any state of being. Accordingly, The Book of Eights also has nothing to say about ending cycles of rebirth as a goal of practice.

Because having faith is often central to having supernatural religious beliefs, it is noteworthy that the word faith (saddhā) appears only once in the Book of Eights and then only in a passage stating that someone who has attained peace is without faith, i.e., has no need for faith. While some form of faith may be implied in the teachings of The Book of Eights, no role for faith is mentioned. What is emphasized is having insight into what one can see for oneself, especially into the many forms of clinging and the benefits of letting go of these clingings.
In the hope that the idea of a natural Buddhism is not seen as a far-fetched idea, I would like to present an overview of the main teachings of The Book of Eights.

Personal Peace Through Not Clinging

Rather than a transcendent, supernatural reality to be attained, The Book of Eights emphasizes a psychological state accessible within the life people live. The text champions a direct and simple approach for attaining peace (santi). The possibility of peace guides the teachings and practices the text advocates. Rather than a doctrine to be simply believed, these teachings describe means or practices for realizing peace.

Clinging is explained as the primary reason a person is not peaceful. The release of clinging is the primary means to peace. The value of these teachings is not found in philosophy, logic or external religious authorities but, rather, in the results they bring to those who live by them. The goal emphasized in this text is described both by the states of mind attained and by the mental activities that have been pacified or abandoned. The most common descriptions of what is attained are peace, calmness, tranquility and equanimity. In sharp contrast, clinging, craving, entrenchment and quarreling are the most frequently mentioned activities that are abandoned. The relationship between these two sets — the states to be attained and what is to be abandoned — is that to experience the peace for oneself one must abandon clinging.

There are three primary themes in the text that elaborate on the message that peace comes from not clinging. These themes are: letting go of views, the qualities of a sage, and the training to become a sage.

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June 23, 2013
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