Before beginning a z-quest it is important to know zandtao’s starting-point, zandtao needs to consider two reflections – beliefs in Buddhism and working with Stephen.
One of the four upadanas is ditthupadana, releasing the upadanas is part of stage 12 in his MwB practice. Within this and also connected to his awareness of patriarchy zandtao is very conscious of institutionalism, and he recognises that institutional clinging is an issue. Buddhadasa was very conscious of the Kalama sutta ("Kalama Sutta Help" by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu); zandtao interprets that as non-belief, listening to the teaching, grappling with the teaching using mindfulness, before putting it into practice using sampajanna: sampajanna is one of Buddhadasa’s 4 Dhamma Comrades. Putting these two approaches together appears, before the z-quest is started, very much like “Buddhism without Beliefs”.
Zandtao’s institutional Buddhist background is different from Stephen’s. Zandtao learnt his Buddhism through the Theravada tradition. Initially he used a process of acceptance of these traditional beliefs before his own discernment took him further. At the beginning of his Buddhism he had lived through bill’s 2nd childhood. There was a strong relationship with path that had started with upheaval but very little knowledge of Buddhist teachings. Through his own conversion at Wat Phra Keau, zandtao started meditation and practice of Theravada (because the conversion was in Thailand) with the help of monks at Harnham Buddhist Monastery - connected to the Forest Sangha.
After zandtao retired to Thailand in 2006, bill wrote Matriellez – at the time mostly concerned with the then education practice even though his intention was to look more at education vision. It was only much later in 2019 that education and spirituality came together in his centring summer, and from then he realised that education vision should be path-enabling – minimising the impact of conditioning on the path and therefore on education.
Soon after Matriellez - maybe 2008 - zandtao started work on the Treatise, that eventually became the Pathtivist Trilogy; the spiritual emphasis was on the path examining his life considering his life experiences and the path-wisdom that arose. By this time his Theravada traditional learning had honed in on Ajaan Buddhadasa, and zandtao’s meditation practice developed from Buddhadasa’s MwB - "Mindfulness with Breathing" by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
Whilst zandtao’s study of Buddhadasa increased, the focus of his studies got deeper and deeper; honing in is a good description of what was happening. There was not an increase in the number of teachings but more focussing in on his own understanding of particular teachings. Soon this honing in became effectively an internal journey, it was not wider teachings that became his practice but fine-tuning what he had learned through this inner journey. As this inner learning became more developed, he began the process of with Viveka-Zandtao. Earlier in his retirement he had found a good learning process in “Bouncing off Pirsig”; he would read a bit of ZAMM or Lila, and using those insights write about them. It is this “bouncing-off” process that became the basis for z-quests.
How was zandtao’s interaction with the teachings? As already mentioned his study of Theravada became study of Buddhadasa, and even more fine-tuning. Only recently his study has taken him across the threshold of autonomy opening what he has called the Prajna portal whilst studying Thay’s examination of the sut(t/r)as in "Awakening of the Heart". Zandtao has developed some understanding of prajna-paramita, and consideration of sutras outside of the Southern school – Pali Canon; what is happening is discussed here. So zandtao is only just touching the Mahayana part of the teachings, knows some of Buddhadasa but no knowledge of the suttas of the Pali Cannon themselves. This is almost the opposite direction that Stephen took with his grounding in Tibetan followed by Korean Zen, and then later consideration of Theravada.
As mentioned in the intro Stephen was not previously reading material because of zandtao judgement (perhaps unfounded) that Stephen was an academic. A friend put him onto a podcast between (On being with) Krista Tippett and Stephen and his “Art of Solitude”, and that nudge became Viveka-Zandtao. Secular Buddhism was not particularly pushed in the Solitude book, so that book did not make zandtao aware of Stephen’s secular Buddhism. However last week he watched a 2018 discussion on Secular Buddhism, and that has opened up questions on secularity.
For zandtaomed secular is a practical issue – is what zandtaomed advises contrary to different religious beliefs outside Theravada Buddhism? As prequel Zandtaomed feels there is no conflict with religious beliefs, he feels what he advises can fit in with other religious beliefs including non-Buddhism. For zandtaomed it is not necessary to believe anything. Meditation is concerned with experience, the benefits that arise from meditation do not require a belief in any dogma, Buddhist or otherwise. In fact it is this lack of requirement of beliefs that makes Buddhism appear so different when Buddhism is looked at in different parts of the world.
Let’s start with the Asian countries who claim they are Buddhist countries. These fall into 3/4 main categories called traditions – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana; Zen and Chan Buddhism are considered similar and maybe described as Mahayana. For the purpose of this discussion there is no focus on difference. There are detailed histories of the way the Buddha’s teachings have moved around Asia (this is not such detail), the way these teachings have travelled have been influenced by two things – revision and country. Zandtao's tradition is connected to Theravada as already discussed. What he describes now might offend orthodoxies but that is not the intention, what he is attempting to do is to provide an overview of where the teachings went, a generalised description of changes and revisions, and a recognition that in some cases countries affected what is known as Buddhism there. This is not an academic history but is meant as an overview.
The teachings of Theravada begin in the suttas of the Pali Canon noted as the Southern school; Theravadan teachings are considered to be the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Laos, and these teachings can be recognised by the use of the Pali word “sutta”. At the time of the Buddha there were no recording devices, and what he taught was remembered, as far as zandtao understands it there were individuals whose “job” it was to remember the sutta. Maybe 3 or 4 hundred years after they were spoken these suttas were first written down (Brittanica), zandtao is not claiming the Brittanica is true but notes that it was a long time for the “actual words” to be remembered and fixed. Theravadans refer to this Tipitaka (Pali Canon) as “What the Buddha Taught”, but clearly the length of time before it was written down casts doubt on that.
In some form the Buddha’s teachings moved “North” and in the process gained revisions, for the sake of this discussion consider moving North as both geographical and revisionist. There were Indian writers such as Nagarjuna who added to the teachings, zandtao doesn't even know whether all the Pali Canon travelled “North”. In Tibet there was an existing religion, Bon, so for academic historical accuracy Tibetan religion would be called Bon and Buddhist. In addition to this there were teachers in Tibet, such as Tsongkhapa, who revised Buddhism, and put together this all became known as Vajrayana Buddhism. Zandtao heard a monk from Tibet give an interesting talk (in Bangkok) which described Vajrayana as the highest form of Buddhism - causing him amusement as Theravadan orthodoxy fumed and yet annoyed him later because of the monk's arrogance. Bhutan follows Tibetan Buddhism.
In the fictional Journey to the West there is a mythological/literary description of a Journey of the teachings (known as Tripitaka in the book) from India to China. What has developed in China is known as Chan Buddhism. Some say the religions/teachings of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism have fused together; under Mao and others(?) these teachings went underground, they appear to be re-emerging now.
It appears to zandtao that this Chan Buddhism went two ways – across to Japan, and back down to Korea and Vietnam. In Japan it became known as Zen Buddhism, and within the Zen of Japan there are different schools; in the US there is an interesting zen teacher, Brad Warner, who follows the teachings of Dogen – he is considered as Buddhist as any Theravadan; how different is he?
In Korea the teachings have been called Korean Zen, and the teachings in Vietnam are known as Mahayana with Thich Nhat Hanh making those teachings famous in the West – sadly he passed this year (2022).
Many of these countries have some sort of Chinese population diaspora, included in that diaspora would be Malaysia who are predominantly Muslim but apparently have a harmonious society in synergy with Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese traditions.
So in the East where countries consider themselves Buddhist in terms of dogma there is a great distinction in what the institutions teach.
World-wide these Eastern countries are the source of Buddhism in the West. Buddhist leaders in the East have taken it on themselves to “educate” the West in Buddhism, this of course is understandable as the global hegemony is western; the economic power that dominates eastern economies flows from the West – despite propaganda that claims Chinese power (even though that power appears to be increasing).
Zandtao's contact with this “education” came through the Forest Sangha of Ajaan Chah in the Theravada tradition. Because his Buddhist conversion occurred at Wat Phra Keau in Thailand, he chose to make his initial studies of Buddhism Theravada. With his conversion came meditation, and he developed a connection with Harnham Buddhist monastery during his contract breaks in the UK – to this day connected in his heart. The abbot at Harnham became a monk at Ajaan Chah’s wat at Ubon Ratchathani, the wat is called Wat Pah Nanachat – international wat. Zandtao had the feeling that the practice at Harnham was “monitored” in some way by Forest Sangha central. He learned a great deal from his connection to this wat but being connected with Theravada and Thailand it has the Bhikkhuni controversy.
Zandtao met this “education from the East” in another way when he lived in the UK for almost a year 20 years ago. He attended a Buddhist meeting of a very pleasant group of Buddhists who followed the New Kadampa Tradition; it was near where he lived – Harnham was a 5 hour drive. Whilst the meetings were pleasant, the teachings were of Kelsang Gyatso; zandtao had doubts in these teachings especially the more he looked into it. But the meetings were pleasant – and nice. And they had a pleasant monastery in the Lake district. The teachings of Kelsang Gyatso were a controversy within Tibetan Buddhism, but this didn’t matter to this group because the meetings were Buddhist, Eastern and Tibetan, and a nice escape; the meetings never helped with his path and he is unsure if they ever would but he never studied the books because he was Theravada.
More famous western Buddhist writers have established their own centres especially in the US where zandtao suspects there are significantly more Buddhists. Zandtao sees these in terms of their online presence, but they usually have meditation centres or monasteries attached - too numerous to mention. He will however mention the monastery(?) connected to his teacher, Buddhadasa; this centre is called the Kevala retreat run by Santikaro and others – if you study Buddhadasa in English many of the translations are by Santikaro.
What is the purpose of this pocket geography of Buddhism? To establish that the front desks/images of Buddhism are very different. As you go deeper – beyond the receptionists’ dogmas affected by both revision and pre-existing creeds in the different countries there is a commonality, and one such is the 4 Noble Truths that Stephen centres on. Can this common denominator/denomination ( – maths joke) be secular? Does the criterion of commonality actually matter? After all, what is commonly accepted is not necessarily a good criterion.
As his own studies of Theravada deepened zandtao began to focus on reconnecting with Dhamma - the importance of sunnata. As he followed Thay’s “Awakening the Heart” he moved into the Diamond and Heart sutras. He must mention here the warning that is throughout his Prajna portal. As Thay took him over what he has termed a “threshold of autonomy” he experienced discomfort, and it became clear to him the importance of the Buddha’s warning in the Diamond sutra. Zandtao sees this as a threshold of autonomy, and zandtaomed offers no guidance concerning this threshold other than the warning of the Diamond Sutra. The revision teachings of Mahayana Vajrayana and Zen are not the suttas (Pali Canon) of Gautama Buddha. Focussing on the teaching of emptiness and Heart sutra led to this discomfort and it was important for zandtao to be conscious of the atammayata of his own practice as his autonomy approached this threshold:-
Stephen comes from the opposite direction, his traditions of Tibetan and then Korean zen have the heart sutra as central according to Stephen in this talk. His journey has taken him towards the Pali Canon of Theravada. Stephen is very knowledgeable of all the Buddhist literature, when zandtao looks at the studies at Bodhi college from the outside he sees a very academic approach – it is what he sees but that is maybe an unfair judgement - zandtao just doesn’t know.
This brings up two concerns about the path:–
the path is neither a particular dogma nor is it based on the volume of teachings.
Both of these could fall under the ambit of ditthupadana if there is not sufficient discernment. Many religious institutions hold to a dogma, and many academic institutions hold to the volume of teachings, the path is neither dogma nor intellect – it is beyond both.
As to Bodhi college, and any other institution he has not attended, any Buddhist dogma he has not studied – any stuff he doesn’t know, he cannot judge – and will not judge. There is only one way of judgement – and that is not from outside:-
Are you following your path?
And only you can know.
Through the Seeker Story zandtaomed encourages people to release attachment by examining their personal history amongst others. This mainly focusses on releasing the egos of vedana and sanna (2 of the 5 khandhas) – the personal, but what about releasing the egos of sankhara – the ditthi of intellectual ego? What remains when we release intellectual egos? In the z-quest on Buddhism without Beliefs zandtao will be looking at what remains.
In his talk on secular buddhism Stephen talked of Buddhism being a task-based morality/ethics rather than a metaphysical truth, and he used the 4 Noble Truths as being that morality. Zandtaomed teaches that the way we live needs to be siladhamma so there is clearly similarity, but zandtaomed asks what is it that decides to be moral? What is the connection between this “what is it?” and “what remains?”
This prequel has started in zandtao his own personal history of the Path. This Path story, or even as Dhamma story, is not about knowing Buddhist dogma – dhamma – knowing the suttas and teachings, it relates to reconnecting to Dhamma – beyond dhamma (as it is beyond conditioning). Reconnecting to Dhamma is not about knowing suttas, it is about understanding and going beyond – using the Buddhadasa phrase “reconnecting with Dhamma” (note the capitalisation). This is not a reconnection with the words of the suttas, it is more than an understanding of the teachings; it is a reconnection with the essence, the source, etc. In practice zandtao sees it very much as the 4th tetrad – the 4th foundation of mindfulness, “perfect the vihara” of the 1st 3 tetrads, and then move beyond in the 4th (through faith in the path) – or as Buddhadasa would say “removing the I and mine from the 5 khandhas”.
But the Path is not limited to Buddhism, this is why it is best not to see Buddhism as a religion. In his pocket history of eastern Buddhism above, the religions in those countries are not exactly the same because Buddhism is not a prescribed religion. There are a series of teachings which have been accepted in different countries and also revised to a lesser or greater extent based on the revisions accepted in a particular country and perhaps even religions that existed in those countries. Without wishing to cause offence there is no reason why Buddhist teachings cannot fit seamlessly into the teachings of other religions such as Christianity and Islam. The practice of releasing clinging to beliefs (releasing ditthupadana) would have to be ignored as both Christianity and Islam have their own beliefs, when fitting Buddhism into those religions the practitioner has their own belief systems. But mostly Buddhism could fit into that. Look at the 4 Noble Truths – dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga; as a practice recognising suffering, that it arises from desire, that it can be quenched by following the Noble 8-fold path does not contradict with any Christian or Islamic teaching.
Buddhism is also a teaching concerning nature – dhammajati, but it does not talk of the creation of nature. It is therefore consistent not to confront that God or Allah created nature, and fit the Buddha’s teachings concerning nature around this "creation". Therefore the open-minded Christian or Muslim could use the Buddha’s teachings on meditation, the 4 foundations of mindfulness, the 4 Noble Truths and add to their own Christian or Muslim practice without having to contradict their own belief systems. Would reflective Christians or Muslims actually be adding or would their own practice already include the benefits of mindfulness for example? Measuring your own practice with the practitioner of another system can only be helpful if belief systems are not used to confront each other. There would be a limit reached at some stage but those boundaries need not be emphasised in a spirit of cooperation.
Earlier in this prequel zandtao spoke of considering his personal history of the Path - maybe even as a zandtaomed advice. Having completed the part of the prequel on dhamma and Dhamma zandtao realises that the first part of any such history is to recognise the awakenings, to understand the reconnecting to Dhamma a seeker needs to know about their own reconnections – glimpses – what Buddhadasa called Nibbana-dhatu.
The first of these for bill has been described in detail as upheaval elsewhere on the zandtao website, but it was so important in zandtao’s personal history it will be described again – with a focus on awakenings. Awakenings started in the Chiswick loft. When bill talks of upheaval he talks of an intense period of two months in his life – from his breakdown at work, the abeyance at his parents’ home, the return to London and finding the job in the cubicle, and the starting of the bells and banjoes in the Chiswick loft. At that time the awakenings only occurred at the Chiswick loft. Bill cannot remember the full loft, there is no memory of his bed, there was a cooking area with a small ring and maybe a fridge and the slanting roof. He would be in this area – maybe there was a table and some sort of comfortable chair, and he would feel the guys filling the room – the “guys” was bill's pet name for presence. At the time he perceived points in the atmosphere appearing to vibrate, and a change of atmospheric feeling. Is that a description that conveys anything? Just guys.
Bill developed a semi-meditational approach that didn’t last long. He would get home feel the guys were coming, and he kind of stilled himself. He didn’t have to do much, they just came. And he just wrote stuff – Martin Smoothchatter at Bert O’Smellies – stupidness; others long forgotten? The Arts people were amused, and this acted as a catalyst. How long did these guys go on? There is no time frame, they were just there in the Chiswick loft. Bill thinks he stayed in Chiswick for two months – who knows? He started taking kids out at the weekend as community work, and quickly became a live-in houseparent, a place far too stressful for Guys. When he moved out of the home there were guys occasionally in the new room where he wrote Hexoto but not as powerful; Hexoto has long been in process for putting online but it regularly stalls. He stayed in this new place until he went to Belgium where he really met the guys again with his 100% dedication at the time. In the cottage they would come most nights, same way as Chiswick Loft – for longer periods of time but perhaps not as powerful. Again it centred on writing; in Belgium bill got any sort of factual book from the British Consul library, read a bit and spilled the writing - far more. Just z-questing on anything. The writing was not about a book, it was about clarity – just emptying the mind of what zandtao would now call attachments, the conditioning of bill's upbringing. He might have kept the writings for a while but they are long gone. Bill returned to the Arts people but by then that had mostly gone and he became a houseparent again, there was drink, and the beginning of 2nd childhood.
There was a powerful nature awakening he recalls in Belgium. Bill went to the Ardennes and had been studying Castaneda – part of the good Castaneda “Journey to Ixtlan”. He decided to get lost. Of the morning he went into the Ardennes and walked, and maybe midday he started walking back. Outward he followed no paths, made no attempts at landmarks and just walked. On his return the day was coming to close and he reached a road. He lost trust in himself and followed the road feeling sure the road would lead to where he was staying. And it did. He later discovered the road took 4km, and where he started on the road was 1 km from where he was staying. The only other thing he remembers of that Belgium time was that he was such a shit to the people who were helping him. He can’t recall why but knows it was his failings; he will always be grateful for what those people did for him – their generosity.
Writing was the way zandtao awakened. In Chiswick it was writing, in Belgium it was writing, and the scifi books of Lizards (that happened after bill's 1st job) and Kirramura (that happened after the 2nd). He particularly remembered the guys the Summer holiday he wrote Kirramura. Connecting with the guys became a routine. He wrote at night. Nearing midnight he would go and lie down on his back waiting for the guys. He would feel them come and felt his body pushed down into the bed, and he could see the presence around him. Once they were “there” he would start writing, and Kirramura was written.
Nature always centred him – no guys though. At bill's own childhood school the teachers had connected him to walking in nature, along with the hours of isolated walking in the Manchester suburb. As an adult drink and then tiredness meant he never got to nature at weekends, but at Summer there was always a holiday that involved getting away and writing – the older he got the more the away meant walking in nature. Bill would start walking, and his mind would be churning over. Then he would remember Castaneda, curl his fingers like the Buddha, and watch where he put his feet – a form of walking meditation he later found out. Walking like this for a while he became present in nature and the churning stopped. There were no visible guys – nature’s presence was there, it was centring not awakening but how much difference is there?
When bill retired there were occasional noticeable presences for zandtao but now they are an unnoticeable presence - just there. Amongst others this presence is now a part of his MwB process during the 4th tetrad. No bells and banjoes, no guys, just a presence that is there as part of atammayata. Writing and awakening were always connected but now there is only writing, presence is there but not as a reward or stimulus – just there as a part.
Zandtao has already mentioned the centring that occurred during Summers. But there was one recent Summer that was central during his retirement. He had stopped the voluntary teaching and there was dedication to the path. There were several weeks of centring that followed from this dedication, it is discussed a little here, and became a part of the second part of the Manual. Following this zandtao was comfortable saying he was 100% dedicated to the path, and writing has increased and become more focussed on the path.
So zandtao has recounted an "awakening history". From the time of upheaval there developed a bill dogma, a spiritual belief he held. It developed from his soul as a writer, and a time with theosophy and eclectic spiritual searchings before he studied Buddhism. Creative people spoke of soul - something inside that created, bill felt that inner guide vaguely. Theosophy spoke of reincarnation and this appealed to bill as a conservation of spirituality. Bill’s dogma was a loose connection of this, and he called himself spiritual. There was no journey into this understanding, over the years there were different books that loosely fit into this spirituality. But central to his spirituality was path. This was not a dogma. This was a reality that had grown out of his upheaval. The path was real and always with him – connected to his soul, the rest was dogma that seemed a suitable description but did not feel like path. It was an intellectual construct that fitted, and bill thought it didn’t matter; now he realises that attaching to this construct was an ego blocking path - how much? This bill dogma was with him until retirement when he started studying Buddhism – Theravada, and his practice removed the attachment.
As a child he had grown into lapsed Catholicism. In terms of beliefs there were none, but his limited understanding of Catholicism makes zandtaomed feel that his advice could fit into it. Accept Catholic beliefs but practice zandtaomed as well.
Let me summarise this prequel. In terms of Stephen there appears similarity. At the beginning of his study of Buddhism bill learnt by accepting the teachings to some extent mainly because it worked. When he converted to Buddhism (a few years before retirement after his life review) and began studying Theravada Buddhism, he accepted the teachings and with each acceptance came greater understanding because they worked in practice. This was mainly Forest Sangha through Harnham. He continued this acceptance into retirement but then he began to end acceptance, this probably coincided with more focus on Buddhadasa. The keyword became experience, if there wasn’t experience then it wasn’t part of the Buddhism to be followed. This brought greater clarity on difficulties such as What is Nibbana? Is there reincarnation? With Buddhadasa and MwB ("Mindfulness with Breathing" by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu) came more of an understanding of the 3 characteristics of anatta, anicca and dukkha in terms of practice. There were occasional glimpses - Nibbana-dhatus, a recognition that reincarnation was a belief system, and accepting Buddhadasa’s interpretation of the suttas in which some of the teachings were directed to Hindus, used a Hindu approach, and that apparent references to reincarnation and self could be seen just in terms of egos and self - anatta.
Now zandtaomed and zandtao’s journey into the unknown through writing is concerned only with experience. Zandtaomed’s advice comes from his experience, there is no belief. The nearest he comes to belief is his views on society which come from tathata – clear SEEing, no view of society can be complete – tathata is what arises through MwB so that we can SEE as clearly as possible. Through meditation (or otherwise) tathata is nature’s gift to SEE what is what clearly. Tathata has become more and more important on his path, the ability to SEE without conditioning, SEEing in a state of atammayata. How does Stephen see tathata?
The basis of zandtaomed’s MwB is the 4 foundations that is summarised in the 3-memes:-
Doing the best you can and perfecting the vihara has no belief content, and at this stage zandtao assumes there is no conflict with Stephen. But having faith in the path would zandtao assumes be part of Stephen’s metaphysical Buddhism. As described above in his awakening history path first arose in bill during upheaval at the Chiswick loft. In some form it has been an essence ever since. Initially bill experienced this path as a core of personal truth, what he was essentially meant to do, what he was meant to maintain a closeness to. Over time that “closeness notion” has disappeared but the path hasn’t. In Viveka-Zandtao this path was investigated, and is going to be investigated here in this z-quest. This path has transformed from a truth that is personal into truth that is reconnecting with Dhamma – Buddhadasa’s description of the 4th tetrad – the 4th foundation of mindfulness. Now there is closeness but not to a core personal truth but to Dhamma, consciousness etc. For zandtao there is no belief in this, this reconnecting is an experience. Expressing this experience and understanding this transformation is part of what zandtao hopes will become clear in this z-quest.
In this Secular Buddhism clip Stephen spoke of the 4NT and spoke of Buddhism as task-based morality. Zandtao very clearly sees siladhamma as the way we can find peace and harmony in society and in daily life, siladhamma is the way nature meant us to live. This raises two questions in terms of this z-quest concerning Stephen. How much does nature fit into Stephen’s Buddhism without Belief? In siladhamma, in our task-based morality, what is it that decides on the morality?
And finally we come to a specific zandtao advice that he hopes will arise from this z-quest – the Path story. As part of zandtaomed’s advice there is the Seeker Story, in a sense this corresponds to the 2nd of 3-memes – the perfection of the vihara. But are there attachments concerning the path itself? Has intellect (sankhara-khandha as part of citta-vihara) created ditthi concerning the path? In Viveka-Zandtao zandtao began removing ditthi from his understanding of path, he hopes that will also happen in this z-quest.
In retrospect Path story never happened. Zandtao has edited out some references to Path story because a specific Path story similar to Seeker Story was never written. That does not belie the importance of awakenings, zandtao hopes every seeker will see the central importance of these awakenings on their path.