People today want meditation without magic, mysticism, or religion. It’s like some folks are attracted to Buddhism that doesn’t seem like Buddhism and/or they are completely turned-off by anything Religulous. Maybe they just want to meditate. But if you are doing any form of mindfulness, you are kinda practicing the Buddha’s teachings. Personally, I feel that what people are looking for can be found within the context of Buddhism. You don’t have to go “secular” or divorce yourself from the teachings. I mean, unless, you really, really want to…
Way back I wrote about a small Chinese Buddhist school that had existed for about two hundred and seventy years when they were discovered during the 19th century. I don’t think they’re still around. Joseph Edkins described them in Chinese Buddhism (1893):
They are a kind of reformed Buddhists… The name of the sect is Wu-wei-kiau, which, translated literally, means the “Do-nothing sect.” The idea intended by it is, that religion consists, not in ceremonies and outward show, but in stillness, in a quiet, meditative life, and in an inward reverence for the all-pervading Buddha. Buddha is believed in, but he is not worshipped. There are temples, if they may be so called, but they are plain structures, destitute of images, and having in them only the common Chinese tablet to heaven, earth, king, parents, and teacher, as an object of reverence.
The use of wu-wei in the name refers to the Taoist/Buddhist term for “non-action,” meaning to take action in a more natural way without struggle or excessive effort.
The approach of the Wu-wei-kiau seems like a secular, modern one to me, like they were thinking outside the box. They felt empowered to interpret Buddha-dharma their own way and yet they remained wayfarers on the Buddha path. The Wu-wei-kiau didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
No one has to bow, wear robes, take vows, have an Asian name, sit in the traditional Asian posture, or believe in karma or rebirth. At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss all that with a closed mind or eschew other aspects of Buddhism, particularly the teachings that don’t rely on abstract metaphysics.
I can’t help but feel that those who take a purely secular or clinical approach, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deprive themselves of considerable mind-nourishment.
In the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), meditation master Chih-i wrote,
If people rely exclusively on [meditation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings? The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.
Anyway. Here is a story Edkins relates in his book, about a time when some “foreign priests” came to visit Lo-tsu, the founder of the “Do-Nothing Sect.” It might give us some more insight into the matter:
The foreign priest then asked him why he did not chant books of prayers. He answered, “That the great doctrine is spontaneous, man’s nature is the same with heaven. The true unwritten book is always rotating. All heaven and earth are repeating words of truth. The true book is not outside of man’s self. But the deceived are ignorant of this, and they therefore chant books of prayers. The law that is invisible manifests itself spontaneously, and needs no book. The flowing of water, the rushing of the winds, constitute a great chant. Why, then, recite prayers from books?”
The founder of the Wu-wei religion was again asked why he did not worship images of Buddha. He answered,
“A brazen Buddha melts, and a wooden Buddha burns, when exposed to the fire. An earthen Buddha cannot save itself from water. It cannot save itself; then how can it save me? In every particle of dust there is a kingdom ruled by Buddha. In every temple the king of the law resides. The mountains, the rivers, and the great earth form Buddha’s image. Why, then, carve or mould an image?”
. . . again he is asked why he does not burn incense? He replies, “That ignorant men do not know that everyone has incense in himself. What is true incense? It is self-government, wisdom, patience, mercy, freedom from doubts, and knowledge. The pure doctrine of the Wu-wei is true incense, pervading all heaven and earth. Incense is everywhere ascending. That incense which is made by man, the smoke of fragrant woods, does not reach heaven. The winds, clouds, and dew are true incense, always shedding itself forth through the successive seasons of the year.”
He was asked once more, “Why do you not light candles?” He answered, “That the world is a candlestick. Water is the oil. The sky is an encircling shade. The sun and moon are the flame lighting up the universe. If there is light within me, it illumines all heaven and earth. If my own nature be always bright, heaven will never become dark. It will then be perceived that the king of the law is limitless.
That’s what I’m talking about…
I hate wearing robes and bowing but I like to chant. I don’t worship Buddha images but I like having them around. I don’t mind lighting candles and I enjoy the smell of incense, but I don’t think they are absolutely necessary. I don’t consider myself reformed or particularly secular, just a Buddhist.