What sort of Buddhism does a self-declared secular Buddhist like myself advocate? I do not envision a Buddhism that seeks to discard all trace of religiosity, that seeks to arrive at a dharma that is little more than a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism.We could make the case that the practice of mindfulness, taken out of its original context, reinforces the solipsistic isolation of the self by immunizing practitioners against the unsettling emotions, impulses, anxieties, and doubts that assail our fragile egos. Instead of imagining a dharma that erects even firmer barriers around the alienated self, let us imagine one that works toward a reenchantment of the world. Doing so will require the cultivation of a sensibility to what might be called the “everyday sublime”
All schools of Buddhism place great emphasis on the importance of practice. Yet most of them have come to rely on a dogmatic rather than a skeptical foundation for that practice. At the risk of making too broad a generalization, let me suggest that religious Buddhists tend to base their practice on beliefs, whereas secular Buddhists tend to base
their practice on questions. If one believes—pace the second noble truth of Buddhism, that craving is the origin of suffering—then your practice will be motivated by the intention to overcome craving in order to eliminate suffering. The practice will be the logical consequence of your belief. But if your experience of birth, sickness, aging, and death raises fundamental questions about your existence, then your practice will be driven by the urgent need to come to terms with those questions, irrespective of any theory about where birth, sickness, aging, and death originate. Such a practice is concerned with finding an authentic and autonomous response to the questions that life poses rather than confirming any doctrinal article of faith.
The Son practice of asking “What is this?” entails a radical suspension of judgment about all beliefs—including Buddhist beliefs. Son teachers consistently challenge the student to turn away from abstract speculation and open their eyes to the everyday objects of the world. A student once asked the Chan master Dongshan (807–69): “What is the Buddha?” Dongshan replied: “Three pounds of flax.” A monk asked the teacher Zhaozhou (778–897): “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Zhaozhou answered: “The cypress tree in the courtyard.” Rather than offer conventional answers, which would lead to potentially endless disputes, these men pressed their students to consider the far more baffling and urgent questions posed by ordinary things that were right in front of them but overlooked.
Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime. I have little interest in achieving states of sustained concentration in which the sensory richness of experience is replaced by pure introspective rapture. I have no interest in reciting mantras, visualizing Buddhas or mandalas, gaining out-of-body experiences, reading other people’s thoughts, practicing lucid dreaming, or channeling psychic energies through chakras, let alone letting my consciousness be absorbed in the transcendent perfection of the Unconditioned. Meditation is about embracing what is happening to this organism as it touches its environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject only the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. “The mystical is not how the world is,” noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, “but that it is.”