Warning!! Remember the Diamond sutra Warning!!.

Prajna Z-Quest on a Secular Path

A Secular Path?

Ch3 - Discussing Stephen's selective interpretation of the 4 Noble Truths?

Zandtao first thoroughly met the 4NT through Buddhadasa in a series of 8 one-hour talks which he began transcribing here – much work done, shame it is not finished – can be read and listened to. Buddhadasa saw the practice of the 4NT now as important, but he chose to develop his own practice of MwB ("Mindfulness with Breathing" by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu) based on his wise understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is the practice that zandtaomed advises, but he discusses here the previous connection of his practise to the 4NT. For completeness as previously stated, zandtao notes that stages 15 and 16 of his practice might be seen by Stephen as metaphysical - especially with the love-wisdom embodiment upgrade.

In the first discourse (App B), the Buddha describes his awakening, and it is focussed around the 4NT (as discussed in the last chapter). Awakening is what matters – as it is the first thing the Buddha discusses, so the question is whether Stephen’s selective interpretation can bring awakening. Could his selective interpretation be a complete path? This will be hard to comment on as it is not zandtao’s path, but this z-quest continues by investigating Stephen’s selective interpretation of the 4NT as path.

Practice means doing, this is what zandtao likes about Stephen’s work - doing. Eckhart does not do a sitting practice because he talks of being present 24/7 – paraphrasing “doing 24/7” - abidance. This is one purpose of meditation practice to be mindful 24/7, zandtaomed practices are intended to lead to this. In the chapter on Awakening, Stephen describes the effects of doing the 4NT, there is the Middle Way of the Noble 8-Fold Path (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), but is there a method of practice as with MwB?

Hand-in-hand with the doing of MwB comes wisdom that understands and the vision that arises (tathata):- "it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nibbana" (from the 1st discourse). The more we understand how the practice works, the better the practice; practice alone is not enough for MwB, wisdom is needed. How does Stephen develop wisdom that is not metaphysical in his terms? Does wisdom arise from Magga?

Can there be awakening without both wisdom and practice - and others? Is Stephen saying that practice is enough for awakening? In terms of the first discourse can awakening arise without the vision? Does the vision arise with the practice – without any awakening?

“The four ennobling truths become principal dogmas of the belief system known as “Buddhism”” [Stephen's BwB 14.8]. This sentence sums up for zandtao why this z-quest with Stephen is worth pursuing even given his selective interpretation. Zandtao sees Buddhism as a way of life – a practice, it is not an intellectual pursuit in which dogmas are learned or believed. For zandtao there is no belief in Buddhism (for zandtao that is ditthupadana); it is a practice for a better life, a life of compassion.

Zandtao wishes to note this quote about awakening and discovery “In describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of having discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom the taste of the dharma” [Stephen's BwB 14.9 ]. He is not sure of the source of Stephen’s quote, but it fits in with this from the first discourse “Knowing and seeing arose in me thus: 'My heart's deliverance is unassailable. This is the last birth. Now there is no renewal of being'" [App B]. Zandtao likes the phrase “taste of dharma” in line with Buddhadasa’s “reconnecting with Dhamma” or “touching the Dhamma”; is the lack of capitalisation important?

“THE BUDDHA AWOKE from the sleep of existential confusion” [Stephen's BwB 14.11]. This is most interesting – awakening from .... existential confusion; it is not awakening to. Before zandtao continues it is important to note that he views Stephen as using language precisely. This is an example. He is not using awakening in any other sense than awakening from “existential confusion”, zandtao interprets this as fitting the way he is focussing on the practice of 4NT. This is a practice that occurs within existence – within the existential confusion. Compare this with zandtao who speaks of going beyond conditioning. Where is the conditioning? In the existential confusion. Where is beyond conditioning? For zandtao, awakening. For Stephen,metaphysics?

Don’t we need to know and see “existential confusion”? Compare this with the phraseology in the Buddha’s first discourse “as soon as my knowing and seeing how things are, was quite purified in these twelve aspects, .... discovered the full awakening that is supreme” [App B]. Can we know and see this existential confusion by accepting it from within?

“The Buddha woke up to the nature of the human dilemma and a way to its resolution. The first two truths (anguish and its origins) describe the dilemma, the second two (cessation and the path) its resolution. He awoke to a set of interrelated truths rooted in the immediacy of experience here and now” [Stephen's BwB 14.12 ] – dukkha, samudaya, nirodha and magga. “Rooted in .... experience here and now”, because of this zandtao wishes to pursue this; but “rooted in experience” doesn’t deny the concerns zandtao has expressed so far.

“Instead of presenting himself as a savior, the Buddha saw himself as a healer” [Stephen's BwB 14.16]; how true is this interpretation? Seems reasonable as the Buddha was concerned with compassion - freedom from suffering for all. “His diagnosis will both identify the cause of pain and tell you if it is curable. If it is curable, he will advise you to follow a course of treatment. Likewise, the Buddha acknowledged the existential condition of anguish. On examination he found its origins to lie in self-centered craving. He realized that this could cease, and prescribed the cultivation of a path of life embracing all aspects of human experience as an effective treatment” [Stephen's BwB 14.16 ]. It is reasonable to view that our way of life be concerned with healing - for our way of life to be about healing or not; see Seeker Story. Conditioning creates the blocks of egoic attachment that prevent us from living a true life of siladhamma; to live a true life, a life of love and compassion, we remove these attachments – that could be considered a healing process. Or we live in a state of existential confusion as caused by conditioning. Whether the Buddha claimed himself as a healer (what is Medicine Buddha?) or not, practice is healing – whether as MwB or 4NT.

On a personal note zandtao does not like ascribing to the Buddha. When you look at the variety of teachings ascribed to Buddhism, there is proliferation and confusion. When you consider the limited history described in the prequel, it is hard to be definitive about the teachings let alone the Buddha character and impact. “The Buddha experienced these truths as ennobling. Awakening was not just the acquisition of a more enlightened viewpoint. It granted a natural integrity, dignity, and authority to his life. Although the five ascetics had vowed not to acknowledge their apostate former companion, as he entered the Deer Park in Sarnath and came toward them, they found themselves standing up to offer him respect. In spite of themselves, they were unable to resist the authority of Gautama’s presence” [Stephen's BwB 14.13]. “The bhikkhus of the group of five were glad, and they approved his words” [App B]. Maybe Stephen is drawing from other sources, but whatever sources we draw from, can they be guaranteed given the lack of rigour in the history?

Assigning reverence and appropriate reactions is the province of religions. Zandtao views all this in terms of the Kalama sutta, essentially what matters is what works for the seeker, and that is a personal assessment - evaluation of one’s own path. When zandtao is asked to take the 3 refuges of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha he is torn. If the Buddha here means Gautama Buddha, from what he knows he can take refuge but he cannot trust the history. For the Dhamma he has experienced some of the teachings, and his experience of reconnecting to the Dhamma governs zandtaomed’s advice; he can take refuge in the Dhamma he has reconnected to, and he can agree with the dhamma teachings that took him there. But he has not experienced all the dhamma teachings so cannot legitimately take refuge in all that is called dhamma or Dhamma. And as for the Sangha there are some genuine people who are trying to follow their paths, some taking orders others not, zandtao can take Refuge in the Sangha of genuine elders and genuine seekers. How can any genuine elder or seeker take refuge in an institution that might have institutional defensive egos? And with regards to taking Refuge within a Buddhism that does not recognise Bhikkhuni Ordination!!

For zandtao it is legitimate for Stephen to turn to the original texts in order to evaluate what is a secular Buddhism. When we consider Mahayana Buddhism however true these texts are they are not attributed to Gautama Buddha. As far as zandtao knows Mahayana Buddhists accept that the teachings of Gautama Buddha are true, but they perceive the teachings they have added improve on or explain those teachings. Zandtao does not know about this, he neither accepts nor rejects it. Stephen seeks a secular Buddhism, that is not zandtao’s purpose. His primary purpose in this z-quest is to find Buddhist teachings that can be "add-ons" to existing religions ie not conflict with existing religions.

“When the Buddha presented his four truths, he first described what each referred to, then enjoined his listeners to act upon them” [Stephen's BwB 14.19 ]. Practice – to act – to do. Stephen then looked at the first truth – Dukkha – that he has translated as anguish (the most common translation zandtao thinks is suffering). Choosing an aspect of dukkha – worry – he describes the practice:- “To understand a worry is to know it calmly and clearly for what it is: transient, contingent, and devoid of intrinsic identity. Whereas to misunderstand it is to freeze it into something fixed, separate, and independent” [Stephen's BwB 14.22]. (For further understanding please read the chapter in Stephen’s book, zandtao quotes to illustrate Stephen's approach but to understand it properly read the chapter). “The first truth challenges our habitual relationship to anguish” [Stephen's BwB 14.20 ], and “The challenge of the first truth is to act before habitual reactions incapacitate us” [Stephen's BwB 14.22 ].

““Letting go” is not a euphemism for stamping out craving by other means. As with anguish, letting go begins with understanding: a calm and clear acceptance of what is happening. While craving (the second truth) may be the origin or cause of anguish (the first truth), this does not mean they are two separate things — any more than the sprout is separate from the daffodil that emerges from it. Just as craving crystallizes into anguish, so does understanding flower into letting go. .... As with understanding anguish, the challenge in letting go of craving is to act before habitual reactions incapacitate us.” [Stephen's BwB 14.26 ].

“By letting go of craving it will finally cease. This cessation allows us to realize, if only momentarily, the freedom, openness, and ease of the central path. This sudden gap in the rush of self-centered compulsion and fear 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” [Stephen's BwB 14.27]. This is a more detailed description of letting go than zandtao uses. Conditioning creates the habit of anguish – an ego, we become aware of the ego and through that awareness let it go, that is the MwB approach zandtaomed uses. The process is the same so we can maybe use the detail together.

“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” [Stephen's BwB 14.27 ].

This quote brings Stephen and zandtao closer together, authenticity, creativity and creative autonomy are terms used throughout zandtao and zandtaomed. And zandtao notes “authentic vision”. So this helps answer some of zandtao’s earlier questioning concerning Stephen’s selective interpretation of the first discourse.

This is the first sentence of Stephen’s preface “I HAVE TRIED to write a book on Buddhism in ordinary English that avoids the use of foreign words, technical terms, lists, and jargon” [Stephen's BwB 10.2 ]. Zandtao is very conscious that so far his writing is the worst sort of writing belonging in the worst corridors of academic nit-picking. Criticism of selective interpretation has been used as a weapon and yet it is perfectly normal writing. Why is zandtao writing in a way he hates? He wants to be clear where there is agreement or not. Through a process of answering criticisms he is reaching some agreement. If Stephen wrote a book like zandtao is writing, it would be tedious and unread (like zandtao’s books). So far zandtao has written such meticulous detail and the z-quest feels terrible, why should Stephen write like that?

Zandtao is going to make a jump. Stephen is writing a book of ordinary English so he is also writing a book that does not have academic meticulousness as its starting point. So his selective interpretation could well be about readability. Now consider the quote above - Stephen's BwB 14.27 , he is talking of authentic vision. From the first discourse zandtao noted the omission of vision, yet vision is part of Stephen’s dharma practice. Vision is part of Stephen’s approach to the 4NT so he was not omitting it from his understanding of the first discourse. Zandtao can dismiss that criticism of selective interpretation.

This quote ([Stephen's BwB 14.27 ]) examines a number of the questions that arise in his first chapters that zandtao has summarised in App A (eg Qns 3&12 - App A). “IN THE CESSATION of craving, we touch that dimension of experience that is timeless: the playful, unimpeded contingency of things emerging from conditions only to become conditions for something else. This is emptiness: not a cosmic vacuum but the unborn, undying, infinitely creative dimension of life. It is known as the “womb of awakening”; it is the clearing in the still center of becoming, the track on which the centered person moves. And it whispers: “Realize Me”” [Stephen's BwB 14.30]. For zandtao seeing “the playful, unimpeded contingency of things emerging from conditions only to become conditions for something else” is moving “beyond conditioning”. Emptiness is sunnata, the Dhamma to reconnect to. Stephen describes this as “the womb of awakening” - “unborn, undying, infinitely creative dimension of life”. If we believe in this, then aren’t we talking metaphysics?

“But no sooner is it glimpsed than it is gone. Cessation of craving is like a momentary gap in the clouds” [Stephen's BwB 14.30 ]. It is not metaphysics because it is glimpsed – what Buddhadasa has described as Nibbana-dhatu. If we glimpse it, it is not metaphysics. It has to be experienced even if only as a glimpse, once glimpsed it is not a theory of ditthupadana. Glimpsing is experience and not metaphysics. That brings Stephen and zandtao even closer. Vision and glimpsing. (Qn 10 - App A)

"We realize that until this point we have not really been on the path at all. We have been following hunches, heeding the words of those we respect, exploring blind alleys, stumbling and guessing" [Stephen's BwB 14.31]. Before the internalisation of glimpsing - of mindful grappling that leads to genuine understanding, there has not been understanding but an intellectual appreciation, the intellect of imitation and acceptance followed by mental process (sankhara-khandha) such as rationality. This tends to discredit my perception that Stephen's process is too intellectual - Qn 1 - App A). How much is Stephen's secular Buddhism based on glimpsing?

Different question, is there bliss with this glimpsing? Qn 16 - App A "The sun shines brilliantly for a few moments, only to be covered over again" [Stephen's BwB 14.30]. Bliss?

"Henceforth, resolve to cultivate this path becomes unwavering yet entirely natural. It is simply what we do" [Stephen's BwB 14.32]. (Qn 6&11 - AppA).

"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. It begins with how we understand the kind of reality we inhabit and the kind of beings we are that inhabit such a reality. Such a vision underpins the values that inform our ideas, the choices we make, the words we utter, the deeds we perform, the work we do. It provides the ethical ground for mindful and focused awareness, which in turn further deepens our understanding of the kind of reality we inhabit and the kind of beings we are that inhabit such a reality. And so on" [Stephen's BwB 14.33]. This is a description of the path zandtao would have been pleased if he had given it. It is a quote that suffuses throughout all the questions, and gives zandtao great motivation for this z-quest (Qns 6,7 &12 - AppA). It raises a fundamental question in terms of trying to fit into Stephen's approach, if there is path, tathata, siladhamma, wisdom, vision and sampajanna where is the metaphysics? (Qn 8 - AppA)

Stephen's discussion of awakening from [Stephen's BwB 14.39] until the end of his chapter on awakening deeply resonates with zandtao. Ever since his upheaval at 23 awakening has been a fact of bill's life. But he was and is far from awakened although awakening is now improving "daily". Awakening is a process of moving beyond conditioning, for zandtao it not one big thing; how we experience awakening is individual.

Where does awakening come from? Much of zandtao's website tries to answer this question. The Buddha in this first discourse (App B) gives his awakening as arising from the 4NT, and it is not wise to ignore such wisdom. But bill's upheaval had no knowledge of this practice although later understanding of 4NT has increased his awakening.

Stephen suggested that awakening has been appropriated by the Buddhist institutions. Zandtao understands why he says this, and wants to point out that there is no one way to awakening. Wise people have given their indications, and it would be foolish for our own sampajanna not to reflect that. The Buddha advised the 4NT, Buddhadasa as a slave to the Buddha came up with MwB as a practise. Stephen is advising 4NT as a practice, why ignore it?

But the method of awakening has only one common characteristic, that the seeker awakens. Where do our glimpses (awakenings - dhatu) take us? Batgap speaks of many paths. Listen to these seekers for their indications. There are wise teachings and wise people in the monasteries – don’t ignore their indications. But awakening to the path is not an exclusive right to an institution or a particular religion. Learn of awakening from wise awakened ones in history.

But awakening is our purpose, and practice that leads to awakening brings with it joy, wisdom, siladhamma and a happier life. If our practice does not have these characteristics, we must question it as the Buddha did with the Middle Way that was neither ascetic nor indulgent.

In terms of working with Stephen, zandtao’s happiness increases with the z-quest. Gratitude.

Originally zandtao had considered a review of the questions that arose in the earlier chapters. When zandtao examined what he had written there were 16 points that need to be resolved with Stephen’s Buddhism without Beliefs; they have now been included as Appendix A. Zandtao has already started noting which questions Stephen's understanding could begin to answer.

What has been resolved is Stephen’s selective interpretation concerning the first discourse; zandtao feels that Stephen is being faithful to the Pali Canon mostly and he now has no intention of questioning most of his selective interpretation - as explained zandtao is comfortable with Stephen’s selection because of the nature of the book and its perceived readers. Stephen accepts sunnata and glimpses – dhatu, this has implications for some of the questions in Appendix A.

One thing zandtaomed does not include, and zandtao tends to ignore is “gods, Maras and divinities”; maybe Stephen does as well. Let’s see what Agnosticism says.


Books:- Zanshadtao/Viveka-Zandtao/Treatise, Pathtivism Manual, Pathtivism Companion/ Wai Zandtao Scifi/ Matriellez Education.
Blogs:- Zandtao, Matriellez, Mandtao.