Part I starts with a suggestion to go back to the beginning: to the awakening of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha himself – and the Buddha’s first discourse in which he declares how he has found the central path through avoiding indulgence and mortification. He then describes four ennobling truths: (1) those of anguish, (2) its origins, (3) its cessation, and (4) the path leading to its cessation.
However, it has come to be represented as something quite different. Awakening has become a mystical experience, a moment of transcendent revelation of the Truth. Over time, increasing emphasis has been placed on a single Absolute Truth, such as “the Deathless”, “Nirvana”, “Buddha Nature”, etc. And the crucial distinction that each truth requires being acted upon in its own particular way (understanding anguish, letting go of its origins, realizing its cessation, and cultivating the path) has been relegated to the margins of specialist doctrinal knowledge. The four ennobling truths to be acted upon are neatly turned into four propositions of fact to be believed. These four ennobling truths become principal dogmas of the belief system known as “Buddhism”. This is where Buddhism becomes a religion, as a Buddhist is someone who believes these four propositions.
While “Buddhism” suggests another belief system, “dharma practice” suggests a course of action. The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act. The challenge of the first truth is to act before habitual reactions incapacitate us. While craving (the second truth) may be the origin or cause of anguish (the first truth), this does not mean the truths are separate things: understanding anguish leads to letting go of craving, which leads to realizing its cessation, which leads to cultivating the path.
Realizing cessation of craving, even if only momentarily, allows us to see with unambiguous immediacy and clarity the transient, unreliable, and contingent nature of reality. Dharma practice at this moment has relinquished the last traces of belief; it is founded on authentic vision born from experience. It no longer requires the support of moralistic rules and religious ritual; it is grounded in integrity and creative autonomy. In revealing life in all its vulnerability, it becomes the doorway to compassion. Henceforth, resolve to cultivate this path becomes unwavering yet entirely natural. It is simply what we do. There is nothing particularly religious or spiritual about this path. It encompasses everything we do. It is an authentic way of being in the world.
Historically, Buddhism has tended to lose this agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion. This transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism”. Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into skepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul.
While Buddhism has tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms, today it is in further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. If these trends continue, it is liable to become increasingly marginalized and lose its potential to be realized as a culture. The challenge now is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of an agnostic and pluralist world.
Reference: Batchelor, Stephen: ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’, The Berkley Publishing Group, New York, 1997.