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After Buddhism
by Stephen Batchelor completed: 06 Dec 2020

One of the core questions that I seek to answer in this book is whether it is still possible to recover the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies and then build upon that foundation an adequate ethical, contemplative, and philosophical practice that optimizes human flourishing in a post-credal age. Paradoxically, to imagine what might emerge after Buddhism, we need to go back to the time before Buddhism began.

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referenced in

journal winnielim.org
the truth of insubstantiality
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highlights (12)

  • Gotama compares each of us to a barren field that needs watering, the parts of an arrow that need to be assembled, and a rough block of wood that needs to be worked. He conceives of a person as an unfinished project, a work in progress.

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  • Nirvana can be compared to the sudden opening up of a space within one’s experience when one’s innate inclinations die down and reactivity fades away. One glimpses in such moments how one is free to act in a way that is not determined by reactivity, thereby enabling the use of practical reason to decide on another kind of future.

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  • The sage (muni) is concerned not only with what impacts his physical senses but with words and concepts that impact his mind. He is on guard against seductive ideas, compelling “images” of the world that seem to explain everything, and beliefs that provide heart-warming consolation. The problem with such ideas, images, and beliefs does not lie in whether they are “true” or “false.” There is something about the very way in which a concept is structured that limits and imprisons us. “A picture held us captive,” said Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations. “And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”60 There is something arid and barren about holding on to any position, even a Buddhist or Wittgensteinian one.

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  • As habitual users of language, we assume words to be accurate representations of reality. Complete understanding, however, no longer succumbs to the convenience of oppositional thought but is open to the immediacy and potential of what is happening from moment to moment. Training ourselves to pay intimate and embodied attention to the very pulse of life within and around us exposes the limitations of language.

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  • The point, therefore, is not to reject dualities in favor of a hypothetical “non-duality” but to learn to live with them more lightly, fluidly, and ironically. The danger of duality, against which the Buddha warned his followers, does not lie in oppositional thinking itself. Rather, it lies in how we use such thinking to reinforce and justify our egoism, cravings, fears, and hatreds.

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  • Nirvana, therefore, does not refer to the attainment of a transcendent, absolute state apart from the conditions of life but to the possibility of living here and now emancipated from the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion. A life not conditioned by these instincts and drives would be an enriched one. No longer would one be the victim of paralyzing habits; one would be freed to respond to circumstances in fresh, unimpeded ways.

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  • Instead of grasping hold of the world in order to preserve it from falling apart, or recoiling from it in order to transcend it, someone who practices the dharma embraces the world in order to comprehend it.

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  • The key to freeing oneself from the repetitive cycles of reactivity and beholding nirvana is attention (manasikāra), the fifth nāma factor. When attention becomes embodied through contemplation of the transient, tragic, impersonal, and empty nature of the bundles, our relationship to experience begins to shift in disconcerting ways. The practice of embodied attention challenges our habitual perceptions of self and world as permanent, satisfactory, and intrinsically ours. By stabilizing attention through mindfulness and concentration, we begin to see for ourselves how pleasurable and painful feelings trigger habitual patterns of reactivity and craving. These two insights not only undermine our inclinations to hold on to what we like and to push away what we fear but open up the possibility of thinking, speaking, and acting otherwise.

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  • All too often in the name of Buddhism, people transform the dharma into a belief system, a religious or ethnic identity, a dialectical tool that they employ to secure a place either in their own egoistic scheme of self-appraisal or in the various pecking orders established by society and the world. Far from dwelling in the radiant, open-hearted equanimity that allows them the freedom to risk responding to life unconditioned by reactivity, they prefer to encase themselves in an armor of fixed opinions, where they can feel self-righteous and impervious to criticism.

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  • As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty, and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

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  • To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and “mine.” It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty, and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a lifelong practice.

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  • It suggests that we spend a great deal of time stumbling about distracted, veering from one thought to the next, forgetting what we had intended to do as soon as a more diverting possibility presents itself.

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