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.
Letting Go of Views
Keeping with The Book of Eights’ emphasis on peace and non-clinging, the main teaching on views is the importance of not clinging to any views, philosophies or religious teachings. This would include views about what happens after death, the nature of the “self,” or whether or not it is possible to fly. The text teaches that someone should shake off every view without embracing or rejecting anything. In addition, a number of verses are critical of any judgment that one’s own religious views are the truest or best while others are inferior.
For many readers, this seeming no-view teaching is a radical message. It undermines the importance of religious doctrines some people base their lives on. The teachings in The Book of Eights provide no support for the idea that one should believe supernatural Buddhist teachings just because they are found in certain Buddhist texts.
The text includes plenty of examples of the problems that arise if one clings to views: attachment to concepts leads to the person swinging between feeling high and low; debating others, one can become anxious for praise and bewildered when refuted; and if clinging to views brings a type of peace, it is an unstable peace. In addition, The Book of Eights frequently mentions that clinging to views leads to quarrels with others, which of course, does not lead to peace.
Finally, the goal of practice is described in terms of letting go of views. Those who have realized the goal—the sages—are not attached to views and so avoid debates, quarrels and any conceit that their views are better than others.
Letting go of their attachments, sages have no need for any doctrine and so do not oppose anyone else’s doctrine. According to one of the verses,
They are not enemies of any doctrine
seen, heard or thought out.
Not making up theories, not closed down, not desirous,
they are sages, wise, who have laid down their burden. (v. 914)
The Sage Described
A second theme in The Book of Eights is the descriptions of the sage (muni). The text does not refer to those who have attained the goal of practice by using words that are common in other, probably later, Buddhist texts. For example, the terms arahant, Stream-Enterer, Once Returner, and Non-Returner are absent. In that rebirth has no role in the teachings of The Book of Eights, it is not surprising to find no reference to accomplished practitioners who return to be reborn once more or who will no longer return to rebirth.
Due to the sage’s proficiency in realizing peace, the sage is often described as kusalo, meaning a skilled person or expert. In that sages are wise, they are also referred to as “the wise one” (dhiro), “the learned one” (pandito), and “one of much wisdom” (bhuri pañño). With the shedding of attachment this person is called “the cleansed one” (dhono).
The most common attribute associated with a sage is peace (santi). Such a person is at peace, peaceful, advocates peace, and sees and knows peace. Related to peace, the sage is tranquil, still and unmoving, unshakable, and equanimous. Though peace is clearly an attribute of sages, they do not depend on peace or intentionally take it up. This is because sages do not depend on anything or take up anything; rather they let go.
These designations and descriptions of the adept suggest qualities that can be discerned in oneself and directly relevant for how one lives one’s life. They do not suggest the sage has psychic or supernormal powers or has attained transcendent realities removed from this world.
What Sages Know and See
A significant attribute of skillful sages is their ability to know and see—sometimes they are called the “ones who know.” What is interesting is what they see. They do not see transcendent, otherworldly realities or supernatural events. They do not see the nature of ultimate reality or some form of ultimate consciousness.
Rather, sages know and see ways in which people struggle. They know what is not harmonious, what is dangerous, and what is dependent. They know the problems that come from pride and holding to opinions. They see how people selfishly thrash about, get elated and deflated in their disputes, speak with arrogance, and cling to teachings. By having insights into these afflictive states, a wise person knows not to get involved with them and knows to let go of them.
The second thing a sage knows and sees is an inner peace realized through not clinging. Being at peace and having overcome cravings, sages become independent in knowing the Dharma. This means they know the Dharma through their own direct insight and experience.
In this way, rather than seeing their past lives or where other beings are reborn, sages see peace and what needs to be abandoned to attain this peace.
A third theme of The Book of Eights is that of training, i.e., doing practices conducive to peace and becoming a sage. While all the chapters of The Book of Eights discuss the ideal and non-ideal behavior of someone who is on the path to peace, six chapters give the most attention to this theme. These chapters describe the qualities and behaviors of someone who has attained peace, the peace taught by the Buddha.
The Book of Eights focuses on fundamental, personal, and psychological transformations for which individuals are responsible for themselves: “Each person must train for one’s own release” (v 940) and “not seek peace from others” (v 919). The text has no helping role from the gods or external forces. To many modern readers this would be less of a revolutionary message than it probably was at the time of the Buddha.
The Book of Eights avoids making a sharp distinction between the means and the goal. That is, the personal qualities describing someone who has attained the goal are the same qualities one is to cultivate when training for the goal.
In many passages describing the goal, The Book of Eights emphasizes how the skillful sage behaves rather than an attainment distinct from how he or she lives. For example, the text does not mention any singular attainment, or transcendent and extraordinary states of consciousness. No mention is made of psychic powers such as the divine eye or the divine ear. Rather, the text enumerates the ethical behaviors such people would or would not do and the qualities of inner virtue or character they would have. In this way, the religious goal of the texts is always described in ordinary human terms, not in mystical, transcendent, or metaphysical terms.
In focusing on cultivating behaviors and virtues that are aligned with the goal, The Book of Eights has very little mention of specific techniques or practices. Stated differently, the text not only does not emphasize religious practices that can be seen as steps toward attaining the qualities of the ideal person, it explicitly and provocatively says that religious observances and the practices in themselves are not adequate for becoming a person at peace. Rather, it encourages people to directly behave like the ideal sage.
One is to train in being what one is to become. If the goal is to be peaceful, the way there is to be peaceful. If the goal is to be released from craving, the way there is a “training to subdue one’s inner craving” (v 919). In this way the achievement of the goal is not radically distinct from what led to the goal as opposed to the case when the attainment of supernatural powers is said to result from the training.
Just as the teachings of The Book of Eights instruct one to avoid opposing or debating religious doctrines, so too natural Buddhism is not opposed to supernatural forms of Buddhism. And, as The Book of Eights discourages positing any doctrine as ultimate, natural Buddhism does not need to see its approach to liberation as better than other approaches. Rather, for those not inclined to believe in the supernatural, natural Buddhism points to a practice and an awakening that does not require believing in rebirth, ultimate realities, miracles, heavens, and hells, but instead teaches about the value of peace and letting go. While supernatural beliefs may be useful for some people, for those who cannot believe what they don’t believe, both natural Buddhism and The Book of Eights teach that to be at peace, one must let go of all clinging, including clinging to both natural and supernatural Buddhism.
One who is attached gets into disputes over doctrines;
But how and with what would one dispute someone unattached?
By not embracing or rejecting anything
A person has shaken off every view, right here.