If you’ve been browsing this site, you’ve come across this concept before, in different contexts. Here, I want to make clear the distinction between Secularity as an approach to solving certain kinds of problems, and Secularism as an ideological stance that one might accept as a component of one’s personal identity. That second thing doesn’t have much to do with our gathering; some of us may identify as Secularists, others as Buddhists, others as Theists of one stripe or another; and many of us will reject any such self-labeling as something of a trap.
But in our approach to problems, and particularly the broad category of problems dealing with how to live with equanimity in a perilous world, our gathering generally rejects religiosity as a useful problem-solving approach and embraces secularity. By that I mean that we don’t seek solutions from powers, beings, processes, or truths which have their place in realms other than this mundane realm that each of us wakes up to every morning. We make no judgment about whether or not such supra-mundane realms exist; we simply accept the fact that if the problems we share have solutions that we can also share—solutions that we can discuss rationally and help one another understand and work out—then both the problems and the solutions will be grounded in our shared experience of the mundane world.
If I were to be perfectly consistent here, I’d call this “skepticality”, in line with the formation of “secularity” in the section above. But I’m going to stick with the common word and make an attempt to differentiate it from another word with which it’s often confused, “cynicism”. Cynicism, as I understand it, refers to the attitude, common these days, that anyone who offers any solution to a difficult problem or who offers an explanatory theory regarding the origins, dynamics, or likely outcome of such a problem is probably operating with a hidden agenda and is to be in no way trusted. Cynical attitudes frequently emerge in one or another variant of a “dog eat dog” or “every man for himself” stance with regard to community.
A skeptical attitude, on the other hand (at least in the sense that I’m using the term here) tends to focus on the solution being offered rather than on the one offering the solution. Any authority claimed by or on behalf of the one presenting a solution is, indeed, to be viewed skeptically, i.e. not accepted on faith alone, or for any other reason, really. And that’s not because one distrusts that particular authority, but because no authority can guarantee a solution’s practicality or correctness. Authorities of impeccable trustworthiness—neither greedy, nor ambitious, nor particularly deluded—have, throughout history, proposed reasonable-sounding solutions to problems, that proved to be simply and completely wrong.
So how do we test a proposed solution? Obviously, a lot of the answer depends on what problem the solution deals with. Testing a solution to a problem in physics requires stating the solution in a way that it’s potentially falsifiable, and then trying your damnedest to falsify it—figuring out what would happen if the solution were correct (or if it were incorrect) and then looking to see if that happens; the looking to see often involves inventing and building big and sensitive and expensive equipment. Testing a solution to medical problems involves trials, with complex and difficult controls to keep those from creating their own harm. Testing solutions to existential problems—problems arising from impermanence, complexity, ambiguity, psychological and social pathology, compromised circumstances—involves procedures for which it’s impossible to establish clear protocols.
In his teaching to the Kalama people, the Buddha recommended something like a protocol to determine whether a particular way was likely to work as a solution to that difficult sort of human problem. The recommended protocol involves testing whether the proposed way is likely to lead you into questionable or compromising behavior, whether the members of your community find the way praiseworthy, whether the way is commended by those society elders whose judgment and wisdom you’ve come to trust, and, most importantly, whether pursuing that way is likely to lead to your well-being and the well-being of your community over the long haul.
It’s important, I think, to recognize that a skeptical attitude involves you with community—it requires that the community approves, at least tentatively, the way you’re considering, that you trust their honesty and good will, and that you consider the communal well-being in examining any way proposed as a solution to hard problems. A cynical attitude, on the other hand, is isolating. It pretty much requires that you don’t trust anybody, in or out of community, and very importantly does not require that you consider the community in evaluating proposed solutions to any problems. In a very real sense, the only ones who can bring a properly skeptical attitude to answers offered by authority to the most important questions are those who have the support of a community which does not pretend to authority but which is intelligently concerned with those same questions. In that sense, then, skepticism is a community value within our gathering.
The proper application of skeptical inquiry can help us determine whether a particular way is worth pursuing; deciding to actually accept that way as our own, and, even more, continually renewing that decision and sticking with it through the long haul, is pragmatic. That is, it depends on whether that way is actually working to help us live more fully.
In bringing a pragmatic approach to a particular way of living, it’s important to recognize that making a decision is not a singular act, begun and completed in a moment or a sequence of moments. Rather, decision-making is an activity that constantly engages us; we must decide how to respond to each new experience, and our decision conditions the next experience. It might be better and more in line with how the philosophy of pragmatism understands phenomenal experience, to talk, not about “decisions”, but about “deciding”. If skepticism guides our acceptance of a genuine or authentic way, pragmatism guides our deciding how to pursue that way at every turning.
The word “pragmatism”, of course, is related to the word “practice”. All practice of any skill is pragmatic, by definition. And we can understand a pragmatic approach to the Buddha’s way more deeply, perhaps, if we see that it is a matter of developing skill. As the musician practices to develop her skill at reading a score or jamming beautifully with other musicians, or a basketball player develops skill at jumping, shooting, passing, reading the unfolding action on the court and responding to all of that so as to win the game, so we practice watching the action in our minds and responding skillfully to every shift of mood, ever memory, every plan, so as to lead richer and more fulfilling lives.
The terms used in the teachings to refer to actions and attitudes that keep one on the way or lead to one’s losing the way were kusala and akusala—“skillful” and “unskillful”. Pragmatism is integral to the Buddha’s way.
And pragmatism is very much a community value. Each one’s purpose—the intentions that each of us brings to the cultivation of the path—is mediated by community; community adds context, nuance, and shared experience to individual purpose, protecting us from the temptations of selfish pleasure and delusional thinking. Second, as we make the decisions and life choices that animate the path in our lives, community can help us see all the ramifications of those—how the path we are on affects those we move among, those we care for; and how our cultivation of the path is changing us in ways that are often not easy for us to see. Community can help correct misdirected or fumbling effort and encourage the decisive action that improves skill and fulfills pragmatic purpose.
It should be clear that secularity, skepticism, and pragmatism, as understood in the context of our gathering community, all require each member of the community to accept responsibility for bringing intelligence, energy, and restraint to the effort that brings us together. While any one of us may be inclined, at some point in time or with regard to some particular experience or idea, to view that with something other than a secular attitude, it’s important to recognize such attitudes as they arise, accept responsibility for them and not get trapped by the belief that some power inherent in the perceived experience authorized the attitude, or to further assume that the rest of the community must accede to that same power and authority and adopt that same attitude. Similarly with regard to skepticism: I have a personal responsibility to scrutinize any way that’s presented as a solution to a pressing human dilemma, but if I come, through that scrutiny, to believe that way is true, I may not insist, on the authority of my belief, to insist that others believe as I do. And as long as someone is not pressing his or her belief on me, it’s not my business to insist that the person subject that belief to the same intense scrutiny that I like to think I bring to my own beliefs.
With regard to pragmatism, it is only the existence of trustworthy and concerned community that keeps a pragmatic approach from degenerating into selfish hedonism.
We all have something to learn from the others with whom we share our way and our community, and what we have to learn is inexhaustible. Even when we see things differently from one another (as we certainly will), every effort in dialog is to sharpen the other’s seeing, and not to convince any others that our viewpoint is right or theirs is wrong. If a community value is that each of us accept responsibility for finding a way and figuring out how to cultivate that in our lives, an additional responsibility is to be responsive and helpful in dialogue with others who are working toward that same goal.
The larger our gathering becomes, and the more diverse the backgrounds and beliefs of the gathering participants, the more each of us can learn from the experience of the others, and the more subtle and purposeful we can become in developing skillful responses to our own experience. So while our secularity gently rejects the methods of religion as appropriate to solving the kinds of problems we deal with in our gathering, we accept that anyone might find his or her source of generosity, creativity, or inspiration in religious experience. If the rest of us cannot share that experience directly, we have no right to deny the power and reality of the experience for the person who has it. If such religious experiences open the person to fresh insights regarding the way, or the state of things in the world, then perhaps we can learn from those insights.
Our Dhamma.now gatherings welcome all people looking for a good way through this world. And we see nothing irrational or foolish or inconsistent, and certainly nothing wrong, with going to Mass in the morning and coming to share our gathering in the afternoon, or sitting with a more traditional Buddhist sangha in the morning and coming to share our gathering in the afternoon, or going to Temple on Friday night and coming to share our gathering on Sunday afternoon, or reading the Times Book Review in the morning, filtering that through an atheistic or agnostic vision of things, and coming to share our gathering in the afternoon. The way in which each person experiences the Dhamma and the Path will, inevitably, be conditioned by all of the other experiences with which that person is involved. And all that diversity will, again inevitably, help each of us to see all of the possible ways in which the Dhamma can resonate in our lives. Our choices will be expanded, and with expanded choices, we will experience an increased freedom, to act in creative ways that bring us closer to our goal.
The first task demanded of us by the Buddha’s Dhamma is imposed by the authentic fact of dukkha. “Here is dukkha,” the teachings remind us at every point and in every way imaginable; “dukkha must be fully known.”
Once we confront dukkha and start work on fully knowing it, it becomes clear, almost immediately, that dukkha is not a personal thing at all. If I am to fully know dukkha, and not just that small portion of dukkha that intrudes on this life I’m living here, then I have to confront the conjoined truths that not only does my dukkha condition the experience of those with whom I live–my family, my neighborhood, my gathering, my culture–but the dukkha that emerges in those collectives conditions the dukkha that I experience. I simply cannot deal with the dukkha that I experience in the form of wanting a chocolate milkshake without knowing how that dukkha is representative of the dukkha exposed by the fact that most of the children on our planet go to bed hungry each night. Knowing one kind of dukkha is equivalent to knowing the other, and knowing either more deeply deepens our understanding of both, encourages compassion, and expands our experience of the way. Dukkha is, in fact, the foundation of our interrelatedness.
So, knowing dukkha, knowing our interrelatedness, we come to know how the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion emerge in our world as war, poverty, exploitation, injustice. A primary value of our gathering must be to maintain a deliberate, non-deluded, and skillful engagement with those perils in the distinctive form they assume in this age. I believe that we can find in the Buddha’s teachings methods that can make such engagement most effective; in seeing how the Buddha himself confronted hostility, delusional thinking, and painful events, we can begin to see how we might engage a suffering world—how to reframe discussions so that everyone is working toward the same purpose; how to maintain mindful awareness of social ills in our personal experience; how to resist the impulse to demonize opponents or press for quick fixes or one-dimensional solutions to long-term, multi-dimensional problems; how to grow our gathering so that many working cooperatively will achieve more than just a few working toward selfish ends. Perhaps most importantly, the teachings persuade us that we must maintain diligent effort, not in expectation of public praise, personal satisfaction, or quick results, but simply because our engagement is in accord with the Dhamma.