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Prajna Z-Quest on a Secular Path

A Secular Path Story

Ch4 Into the Unknown without Squirming

Speaking of the Buddha, “when asked about metaphysics (the origin and end of the universe, the identity or difference of body and mind, his existence or nonexistence after death), he remained silent. He said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom” [Stephen's BwB 16.7]. By metaphysics does Stephen mean the Buddha's unanswered questions - avyakata? If zandtao has ever tried to grapple with these questions he feels disturbed, and as a result he has accepted that it is not wise to confront them - even though partial understanding arises with his practice. If this is what Stephen means by metaphysics, then there is some general agreement with zandtao – no metaphysics, for zandtao there is no seeking of answers to avyakata. Is Stephen correct in suggesting that Buddhist institutions try to answer the unanswered questions? He would know far better than zandtao.

If there is practice and avyakata, then Stephen and zandtao are aligned in many ways. Nature and consciousness, for example, are not unanswered by the Buddha eg understanding that is similar to Buddhadasa’s idappaccayata and Eckhart’s consciousness; then we have as part of this z-quest to answer the question of metaphysics and avyakata? (Qn 8 – AppA).

“The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more of a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening” [Stephen's BwB 14.9 ]. Is Stephen’s metaphysics this “privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks”? What he classifies as metaphysics might not be transcendence as zandtao understands it, but privileged esoteric knowledge - what might be considered as answers to avyakata. “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,” “the Unconditioned,” “the Void,” “Nirvana,” “Buddha Nature,” etc., rather than on an interwoven complex of truths” [Stephen's BwB 14.6]. Zandtao interprets that Stephen sees his own 4NT-practice as leading to "an interwoven complex of truths", but not leading to "privileged esoteric knowledge" nor the “mysteries of God”. What about Eckhart’s mystery of consciousness? (Qn 14 &15 – AppA). For zandtao transcendence is concerned with moving "beyond conditioning" - not recognition of an absolute. Releasing attachment that arises from conditioning and egos enables the seeker to move beyond the conditioned, remaining a part of the world but not attached to conditioning - conditioned egos; this is how zandtao sees transcendence. He does not see transcendence as a mystical awakening nor any of the absolutes in this quote (Stephen's BwB 14.6) above. However he does see transcendence as leading to that which is beyond conditioning. How much of an overlap is there with the absolutes that Stephen's quote describes ? This might become clearer as answers to AppA arise in this z-quest.

“WHEN ASKED WHAT he was doing, the Buddha replied that he taught “anguish and the ending of anguish” [Stephen's BwB 16.7 ], although anguish is usually called dukkha. When a seeker releases attachment, then dukkha (Stephen's anguish) is reduced. Buddhadasa talks of quenching dukkha through anatta - no I or mine ie no conditioned egos. Is this "anguish" view (Stephen's BwB 16.7 ) an accepted view of the Buddha in all traditions or just a Theravadan view?

“He ( - the Buddha) made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as “God”” [Stephen's BwB 16.7], but he did speak of “gods, Maras and divinities” in the first discourse and elsewhere.

Stephen claimed that “It was not long before a self-respecting Buddhist would be expected to hold (and defend) opinions about the origin and the end of the universe, whether body and mind were identical or different, and the fate of the Buddha after death” [Stephen's BwB 16.10]. This is a further indication that Stephen’s metaphysics is concerned with the avyakata.

“BUDDHISM HAS tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion (i.e. a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests)” [Stephen's BwB 16.12]. This is a scything description of religion that zandtao sympathises with, but accepts that this description has implications; such an acceptance requires deliberation.

At this point zandtao steps back from Stephen's scythe. Bill’s "awakened?" journey began with the Chiswick upheaval, and from that time on his life was related to the path in terms of recognising closeness. Throughout his 2nd childhood there would be occasional times in which he questioned this closeness. At the time of his early retirement this lack of closeness was dominant - his work life and centring solitude during holidays were so distant from each other. Initially on his post-probate trip round Asia he began thinking about “going to Asia and running a bar”. What a mistake that would have been but it had the attraction of escaping the careerism and profiteering of teaching. During the final job he found that he had the financial wherewithal (his parents had died and he had some savings) to escape teaching and retire to rural Thailand, meaning he could close the gap between his path and way of life.

In Botswana, maybe 10 years before he took early retirement, bill began a mid-life review – maybe he was 45/46. Amongst others this led to his leaving Botswana to try to get more money from his teaching, and in his first job following he had a holiday in Thailand and at Wat Phra Keau realised he was Buddhist. Whilst this was a significant change in his life the revelation was not that powerful – limited bliss. Meditation became part of his daily life, he studied Theravada because the revelation was in Thailand, and developed an important connection with Harnham Buddhist monastery, a Theravadan outreach of the Thai Forest Sangha. When he retired to Thailand Buddhism was central in his decision-making, but since being there he only attends wats for funerals.

Initially his studies had been guided by his connection to Harnham and Ajaan Chah, but when he retired he gravitated to Ajaan Buddhadasa; other than his empathy for Buddhadasa’s teachings he cannot recall how he made the connection. He has visited Suan Mokkh in Chaiya and the non-natural Suan Mokkh in Chatuchak, but has not attended meditation courses using Buddhadasa’s MwB. As zandtaomed the meditation elder his meditation developed from this MwB, his path took him to the trilogy and pathtivism, and finally his work on Viveka-Zandtao led to an understanding of solitude in his life. This final book of zandtaomed took him to the path of zandtao the seeker into the unknown. Whilst that sounds vague it took on deep meaning as he crossed the threshold of autonomy and began his work as zandtao the seeker in the Prajna Portal. In the portal zandtao’s seeking is concerned with his own autonomy and understanding, but whilst his seeking is predicated on the path he learnt and exemplified by zandtaomed’s advice, the seeker’s focus is on the quest into the unknown, discovery through z-quests as with this.

Zandtao's seeker’s focus started with the path at upheaval, and is now the path. The focus is not Buddhism; it is not the Noble 8-Fold Path but the essence of path discussed in viveka-zandtao’s “Following the Path”. Whilst Buddhism has helped him along the way and whilst Buddhadasa’s MwB is central to his meditation method and that this method is central to his path, zandtao does not follow Buddhist teachings per se. Whilst zandtao can legitimately call himself a Buddhist because he follows a Buddhist way of life his focus is on path, and in this z-quest he is examining what a secular path might be and how secular his path is:-

Whilst the focus on path is clear where Buddhism fits in for this is far from clear. Zandtaomed and zandtao’s work has mostly /been in isolation from formal Buddhist influences such as wats, and he has not studied as a monk. This is the first z-quest where zandtao has actually studied a sutta although "Awakening of the Heart" by Thich Nhat Hanh that took him across the threshold of autonomy was a collection of Thay’s favourite sut(t/r)as with commentaries – zandtao tended to study the commentaries.

So where is the religion of Buddhism in all this? For zandtaomed Buddhist teachers were crucial in building up the advice of the elder, and for seeking zandtao pays particular attention to the warning of the Diamond Sutra and focuses on atammayata. But does he call himself a Buddhist?

How does anyone call themself a Buddhist? In Thailand a Buddhist country many people consider themselves Buddhists, and Thai Buddhists zandtao knows would call him a Buddhist; but zandtao has no relationship with Thai Buddhism generally nor with any of the institutions connected with Buddhadasa since his death (in 1993 long before zandtao retired to Thailand).

What is Buddhism is an essential question if as Stephen you are investigating secular Buddhism, but zandtao is not doing this. Zandtao is concerned with path, is seeking clarity on his relationship with path, and using Stephen's approach of secular path to gain that clarity. Zandtao sees that none of this is connected with the institution of Buddhism although he is studying people who call themselves Buddhists.

At this point Stephen’s scythe has some interest – “institutionalized as a religion (i.e. a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests)”. Clearly a belief system and an elite body of priests are components of a religious institution. Zandtao has no belief system, because he now only accepts Buddhist knowledge if it is his experience. Whilst in the past members of “this elite body” have advised him – and he will always be grateful for such advice, he does not accept the words of the members of this elite body. Because they wear an orange robe he will listen with intent, but his learning comes from mindfulness grappling with what is spoken and is not concerned with believing them – kalama sutta. For fairness zandtao wishes to note that when he began studying Buddhism he did believe what he was taught, and through this belief was able to develop his understanding; but the more he understood the less he needed to believe until he eventually stopped believing – ditthupadana. So he listens to orange robes not as belief but to grapple with what is being said.

With bill having spent his life working in institutions, zandtao has some understanding of institutionalism, the fear that binds an institution and the fear that creates policy. Religion demonstrates such characteristics of institutionalism, and Thai Buddhist institutions demonstrate such institutional characteristics especially the appalling patriarchy of Bhikkhuni ordination (here is a 90-minute discussion with a Nun and Ajaan Brahm).

In this z-quest zandtao’s intention is to examine secularity and path, Stephen’s purpose appears to be some form of secular Buddhism so there is a clear need for some direction on secular. For zandtao this is clear, is the path belief-free and can therefore be used with all religions?

This definition brings up more questions than answers, but in using it zandtao intends to clarify what he is looking for in a secular path:-

1a) A secular path can be timeless but is intended to be practised in the world.
b) Whilst this path has been greatly influenced by the Buddha and Buddhist teachers, it is not a path that requires any beliefs that might be characterised as Buddhist “gods, Maras and divinities”. Because zandtaomed advice on meditation arises from Buddhadasa it will be characterised as Buddhist, but Buddhadasa discusses “No religion”. Maybe zandtao needs to investigate this in this z-quest. MwB includes the 3 characteristics of Buddhism – anatta, anicca and dukkha, and yet these meaningfully only arise from experience. Zandtaomed knows that studying Buddhist texts would help in understanding these characteristics, but good understanding would only arise in experience and there is no beliefs required for such experience.
c) No interaction with any Buddhist institution is required. Retreats are recommended, can be provided by Buddhist institutions but such retreats are not required to be Buddhist.
2) Whilst a retreat might require rules, overall there are no rules or vows required. Zandtaomed’s teaching method requires a commitment to daily meditation and daily feedback, but if the seeker chooses to work on their own there are no rules or vows. There is no requirement to belong to a religious organisation (Buddhist) and no requirement to attend a congregation. Zandtao would note here that listening to Buddhist monks could be beneficial but Buddhist adherence on the part of the monks might prove a problem for questioning minds.

Because of zandtao’s personal history with Buddhism it is difficult to differentiate the secular, but throughout this z-quest hopefully that will develop.

Zandtao is going to flag a difficulty here – being “belief-free” and the upadanas. These are the 4 clingings of clinging to desire, clinging to beliefs or views, clinging to rites or rituals, and clinging to a self. Desire is clearly secular. Clinging to beliefs or views would exclude clinging to dogma, and all religions have their dogmas. Clinging to rites and rituals is a religious problem, a requirement of a religious institution. And clinging to self is the Buddhist characteristic of anatta, but self arises from conditioning and can be let go from within any religious position except that views create self. This will have to be given more practical consideration if deep-rooted secularism is to be reached.

Can zandtao progress given this? Let me return to Stephen’s scythe of religion “a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests”. If this benchmark is held to rigidly then it will miss much that religion brings such as the pastoral and community support. Yet the institutional requirement of accepting a dogma and set of rules does prevent learning. This is especially so concerning the path where this acceptance prevents reconnecting with the path essence. The path has no revealed belief system, as the seeker learns so the seeker finds their path; it is up to the seeker. At the same time the path has no elite priests. On the path seekers can study many people of authority, but if their words are simply accepted as truth (without mindful grappling) then they become beliefs which hinder reconnection to the path. But if those words are advice, are accepted as advice, and through grappling with mindfulness become experience and understanding then there is no block – no hindrance.

Clearly zandtao has sympathies with the scythe but cannot accept the dichotomy of such a scythe, there is more to a religion and its community than a belief system and its priests. This lack of precision on zandtao’s part might well void much that is Stephen’s secular Buddhism, how much does zandtao want to consider this disharmony with institutionalism? Whilst Buddhism as an institution has helped zandtao and he will always be grateful, real reconnection with path came when he moved beyond studying dogma and acceptance of the institution. As a pathtivist maybe zandtao can marginalise the institution, but for many people who are not particularly seekers the institution has benefits. Ironically in the conditioned world Buddhism as an institution has benefits Muttley. Similarly Stephen describes the Buddha as “an openhanded teacher without an esoteric doctrine reserved for an elite. Before he died he refused to appoint a successor, remarking that people should be responsible for their own freedom. Dharma practice would suffice as their guide” [Stephen's BwB 16.9]. Zandtao interprets “responsible for their own freedom” as being part of following their own path, and zandtaomed advises MwB – Buddhadasa’s Dhamma practice.

“The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered swiftly reasserted itself—usually by subsuming the rebellious ideas into the canons of a revised orthodoxy” [Stephen's BwB 16.13 ]. This cannot be denied as a consequence of religious institution – simply observe. But what if the institution was taken away from these pious disempowered, a need would be unfulfilled. In a non-religious arena people have turned to wellness because wellness enables people to function in society. In terms of wellness mindfulness assuages, yet at the same time the truncated mindfulness that is preached by wellness subsumes the rebellion that comes from truth and tathata. Take away this wellness, and some people would struggle to keep a job and feed their families.

In terms of conditioning there are three sets of people – followers, seekers, and the leaders who have moved beyond. Religion and wellness help followers survive, seekers are learning, and the hope for change lies with the leaders who have moved beyond. In terms of religion are our leaders working for change? Hopefully leaders who have moved beyond are in positions of power within their religion, but by observation these institutions are not bringing the change that can improve the conditioning and followers suffer.

Although zandtao is still seeking into the unknown he has spent his life trying to move beyond conditioning. His institution is pathtivism – following the path and encouraging activists to follow their path; crossing the threshold of autonomy was an indicator of this leadership, and with that he reserves the right to question. All people can question but zandtao’s path is very firmly in the arena of questioning the institutions. Are institutions working towards the path for their followers? Are institutions working against the collective kilesa of patriarchal conditioning? These positions are path yet in our contemporary society these ideas are “rebellious”, for many followers such questioning is “subsumed into the canons of orthodoxy”. In Real Love zandtao recognised the repression of love by patriarchy, and the natural rage that arises from such love being repressed; love has become rebellious. Where is this legitimate rage in the canons? Released as an ego of anger – formally repressed (let go) by the subsuming canons. Once a seeker has become autonomous there is a responsibility to promote freedom through questioning. But of course, sound leadership would welcome such questioning from followers and seekers; far too often, however, such questioning is dismissed because it threatens the institution.

“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. Agnosticism may serve as a more fertile common ground for dialogue than, for example, a tortured attempt to make Buddhist sense of Allah” [Stephen's BwB 16.14 ]. Again zandtao is being dragged into the intellectualism of terms – secularism and agnosticism, it is tedious but has to be done to clear the path.

This agnosticism is the metaphysics of avyakata, neither for nor against just “unanswered”. In terms of religious faith this agnosticism is countered by a belief in God; please note this religious faith and zandtaomed’s “faith in the path” are different – see faith in Viveka-Zandtao where I first "discovered" faith. The Buddha speaks of “gods, Maras and divinities”, this is not the God of Christianity and Islam. How does “gods, Maras and divinities” relate to Stephen’s understanding of agnosticism?

Stephen perceives of a situation in which Christianity and Islam are trying to ally with Buddhism against Godless secularism, and is suggesting by this quote [Stephen's BwB 16.14 ] that agnosticism is a way forward towards unity.

Impasse, thankfully. Clearly the attempts at secularisation and questions of agnosticism and religion are a rabbit-hole. Whether Stephen is himself too intellectual or whether his secular purpose is too ambitious, this whole process is tortuous; and if it is tortuous it is not path. Zandtao suspects that any attempt to slide zandtaomed without conflict into the religions of Christianity and Islam is impossible. This is not because there cannot be harmony, but when you consider that both Christianity and Islam have belief-based dogmas and that the institutional nature of such religions is clinging. The harmony can come by being open about the conflict, determining where the conflict lies, and openly and honestly describing how zandtaomed can be used in harmony with the religions. Zandtaomed is agnostic because it does not address the avyakata, zandtaomed does not conflict with the belief system up to the point of the egos of upadanas. Much can be gained from zandtaomed advice up to this clinging-point but it is quite possible that these religions have their own practices equivalent to zandtaomed advice.

Zandtao is ending this tortuous attempt to fit into secularism. He is still interested in z-questing Stephen’s secular Buddhism but draws a line at this continuous squirming.

But there is a point of agnosticism that is essential to zandtao’s path – seeking – questing into the unknown. There is meant to be an unknown for seekers to quest into. It is an unknown that is unending. In Eckhart’s terms there are two aspects of the mystery of consciousness – what is consciousness itself, and the wisdom practice of evolving consciousness. Path embraces this unknown, and generations of seekers have found their path and crossed the threshold of autonomy and quested into the unknown. What is the unknown? . How can there be an answer? There is not meant to be an answer. Seekers quest, evolve consciousness, and find new answers – that is the path of human nature.

This unknown historically might have been the realm of God, “gods, Maras and divinities”, but it is not a realm of esoteric knowledge with which to control the followers. It is simply the unknown we as autonomous seekers learn about. To become God ....? Absolute arrogance. There is no becoming, there is quest, seeking and learning. And in the unknown there is no fixed, there are no beliefs, there is just ongoing quest. And of course fun because in the unknown there is no tortuous intellectualism.

Is Stephen’s secular Buddhism important? Maybe. What is important is the practice? From the practice the seeker is following their path eventually crossing the threshold of autonomy moving into the unknown – the realm of the agnostic seeker.

Are religious institutions following the path? Mostly no. Buddhism is a good illustration. In the first discourse the Buddha announces his awakening though following the 4 Noble Truths. Zandtao has no references but understands that the Buddha says this awakening is open to everyone. Do the institutions of Buddhism say this? What about the gross negative of Thailand’s Theravada that excludes women from ordinations? For the path to try to fit into institutions becomes tortuous. The path and institutions can exist in harmony once an upadana-point is recognised, zandtaomed’s advice recommends this harmony, does not hide the upadana-point, and asks the seeker to deal with their own clinging. No confrontation, up to the seeker.

This upadana-point applies to Buddhism as well, the institution of Buddhism has its own clinging to beliefs and rituals – and of course self despite the characteristic of anatta. But harmony is harmony if there is no force, and zandtaomed has no force – institutions may use force.

To be fair to Stephen he talks of T H Huxley “For T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed” [Stephen's BwB 16.17 ] describing agnosticism as ““Follow your reason as far as it will take you”” [Stephen's BwB 16.17]. It is not at all surprising that in the squirming of intellectualism reason will rise not as a tool of sankhara-khandha but as the metier of the intellectual, the way or route in which the journey of the intellectual takes place. Questing into the unknown has nothing to do with aggrandising reason, as with all matters on the path reason is a sankhara-tool mainly for clarifying wisdom or insights. The quest into the unknown belongs to the realm of the mystery of consciousness, and its starting point, in a sense its own threshold, is the end of belief – including the end in the belief of the Church of Reason. But at least for T H Huxley agnosticism was a quest. Huxley used the term “agnostic faith”, is this faith in the unknown? How much is that connected to faith in the path? Of course it is not faith in reason which is the faith of the Church of Reason, was it T H Huxley’s faith?

And we have now reached the same squirming dilemma with Stephen. “He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable” [Stephen's BwB 16.18]. In the first discourse the Buddha used the phrase “by knowing and seeing how things are”, is this reason? Zandtao would describe this as “knowing – wisdom” and “seeing how things are – tathata” and understanding the nature was more concerned with “grappling with mindfulness” than reason. Intellectuals of the Church of Reason use reason for all kinds of processes that are not reason and subsume them all as reason.

This might be a “quality” of Stephen-approach, an approach that I let escape last time because of his “breadth-of-appeal” intro. But overtly this approach is intellectual (reason) as was the selective interpretation. It is wasteful to be continually examining this approach, it seems clear to zandtao that Stephen’s reduced descriptions are selected for purpose – a secular Buddhism, yet zandtao thinks he has established that Stephen’s practice is beyond the way his language describes. It is not constructive to squirm and grapple with this use of language as zandtao has accepted that his zandtaomed advice can only be secular up to the upadana-point. So stop squirming and see if z-questing this book can help with his own quest into the unknown.

Relief – this is the point at which squirming into intellectualism ends for this z-quest. Zandtaomed’s advice is secular and it isn’t, his path is secular and it isn’t; there is an upadana-point at which conflict arises. Let’s work together up to the upadana-point. And Stephen squirming is over, zandtao accepts an upadana-point and secularisation cannot go beyond it. Throughout zandtao has accepted and then not accepted Stephen's selective interpretation, this vacillation has to end - it is not constructive not consistent. There is no total coming together with Stephen, and from here there will be no attempt at "togetherness" because of all the doubts concerning metaphysics, avyakata, wisdom and tathata. The path is the path, and it has no upadana. To be fair to you, Stephen, without close examination magga has no upadana-point – rightness and right view have to be grappled with. But in this z-quest zandtao is done with squirming .

The end of squirming.


Zandtao Meditation page Advice from Zandtaomed

Books:- Real Love/Viveka-Zandtao/Treatise, Pathtivism Manual, Pathtivism Companion/ Wai Zandtao Scifi/ Matriellez Education.
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