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14. The Parable of the Snake
The book I have been writing has moved on. I am now thinking of calling it Gotama, Socrates and Us.
Socrates and Gotama, I will argue, are both advocates of an Ethics of Uncertainty.
At the end of a dialogue on the cardinal Greek virtue of justice in the first book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates concluded:
The result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.
Socratic dialogues often end in such a state of perplexity and doubt (aporia), leaving the participants suspended midway between “is” and “isn’t,” unsure of what to think or do.
The ethics of uncertainty remains the guiding thread that holds it all together.
It now looks as though I am heading for a synthesis between the ethics of uncertainty found in Gotama and that found in Socrates as a means to address the central issues of survival that confront all sentient beings on this planet.
In the Parable of the Snake [M. 22], Gotama compares practising the dharma to the handling of a poisonous snake. Such a snake is swift, silent and lethal. I imagine this creature as having thirty-two vertebrae, which grant it both strength and flexibility. If the dharma is to enable human flourishing, it needs to be treated with the kind of sensitivity, dexterity and care with which a doctor would handle such a snake in order to extract its venom. This person is not repelled or frightened by the snake she holds in her hands. She has no intention to cause it harm. She treats the creature with respect, fully aware that should the snake feel threatened by anything she does, it could bite and kill her.
Dharma: = conditioned arising and nirvana = both contingency and freedom are potentially dangerous
The manner in which you approach, take hold of and configure the dharma is likewise crucial. If you organize its elemental ideas and values to “criticise others and win in debates,” as Gotama warns, then you risk turning the dharma into an ideology. You are liable to succumb to the superiority conceit of being certain about what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. Given our insecurity, finitude and ignorance, the craving for certainty can be hard to resist. More insidiously, we may not even notice how deeply we are in thrall to the longing to be right.
If the dharma is to serve as the matrix for a culture of awakening in the twenty-first century, capable of addressing the global issues of our time, it needs to be systemically reimagined and reconfigured. Simply modifying or symbolically reinterpreting classical doctrines is unlikely to be adequate to this task. As a living current of ideas, values and practices, throughout its history the dharma has demonstrated a capacity to reinvent itself. This process has involved both a return to forgotten sources within the tradition as well as an engagement with fresh currents of thought, culture and practice that lie outside the tradition.
In the remaining sessions on this course, we will explore in greater detail this systemic reimagining and reconfiguring of the dharma. It will mean stripping Buddhism bare to reveal the snake within. And that snake, I will argue, is not reducible to a single idea (such as emptiness or interdependence) or practice (such as mindfulness) or ethic (such as non-harming) but encompasses a matrix of virtues embedded within a fourfold sequence of tasks. To explore this in greater detail, however, will involve unravelling old Indian Buddhist doctrines with which some of you might not be familiar. This journey will hopefully uncover the “deep logic” of the dharma. My sense is that once we have identified this logic, we will be in a position to start all over again. It is this that I am keen to introduce to Netiwit and his friends in Thailand, so that they might be able to develop it into a way of life that is rooted in their own tradition but addresses the condition of global modernity they find themselves in and are struggling to address.
The goal of a rigorously secular dharma is the survival and flourishing of all sentient life on earth. Each one of us will die and in all likelihood disappear back into the elementary particles from which we were made, but our fleeting presence here will continue to echo through the lives of our children and our children’s children until we are forgotten. Our artefacts — like this book — will outlive us for a while until they too turn to dust. Yet what matters in the end is whether we have led a life of care, compassion and wisdom that has played a role, however slight, in inclining human life away from reactivity to creativity, from injustice to justice, from aridity to flourishing, from selfishness to love.