The Buddha on Prayer and other Secular Buddhist talks

The Buddha on Prayer and other Secular Buddhist talks December 4, 2017

I rarely follow podcasts, series, or youtube channels, but I have become fairly hooked on my friend Doug Smith’s YouTube channel called Doug’s Secular Dharma. Doug and I have co-written an article and a book chapter and I look forward to working more with him and possibly joining him on some of his future videos. Until then, I thought I’d share some of the more recent ones that I’ve especially enjoyed:

What did the Buddha Say about Prayer? 

This is an excellent video. Doug goes beyond the tried-and-true Kalama Sutta and finds two suttas that deal specifically with the idea of wishing for things (in a supplicatory prayer manner). The first is the Ittha Sutta (AN 5.43), wherein the Buddha lists 5 things people commonly pray for: long life, beauty, happiness, status, and rebirth in heaven.

And the Buddha says, “none of these these five things are obtained by prayers or wishes.”

Instead the Buddha says one should practice heedfulness (a word that might be fading from the English lexicon, to be replaced by attentiveness or just “good attention” or awareness, non-distractedness, etc) and making merit. [Concept(s) of heedfulness and merit might be a good upcoming video – nudge, nudge.]

Next, Doug presents the Asibhandhakaputta sutta (SN 42.6), wherein the Buddha might even be said to be mocking the notion of “prayers, praise, & circumambulation,” as a way of affecting things in the world around us, beit the destination of another person’s rebirth or making a great boulder float in the middle of a lake.  As before, the Buddha suggests the uselessness of these activities and replaces them with a basic list of the 5 precepts.

Along similar lines, though not discussed in the video, is the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31), where the Buddha urges a young man to give up his morning ritual of worshiping in six directions and instead take up a virtuous life directed at six sets of individuals. This helped extend the template for lay Buddhist ethics beyond the 5 precepts.

Speaking of… The Five Precepts

As Doug says, these are the basis of Buddhist ethics, but they’re not commandments. Also, quite rightly, he notes that there can be some residual reactivity by Western folks when encountering these precepts (or pretty much any talk of ethics, in my experience).

However, without established ethics, a lot falls apart. Whether you are a beginning Buddhist, a disgraced multi-millionaire Tibetan guru, or the President of the United States, eschewing ethics is unwise business. Even if you’re definitely not a Buddhist, but just want to develop mindfulness and perhaps a bit of the kind of understanding that Buddhists talk about, you’ll find ethics to provide the needed foundation.

You’ll find here that Doug’s discussion of the 5th precept dovetails nicely with the above call for heedfulness. Heedlessness is (pammada) is a central term in the 5th precept and is what is to be avoided.

Speaking of being a Buddhist: is Buddhism a religion?

Doug here offers at least a few ways in which it isn’t. This is likely a response to Scott Mitchell’s great recent article, “Yes, Buddhism is a Religion,” where Mitchell writes, “To acknowledge Buddhism as a religion is to appreciate its long history and endless cultural manifestations (including our own).” Mitchell continues:

“But isn’t Buddhism really a way of life? A philosophy?” some ask. Yes, of course. Like all religions, it has a philosophy. Like all religions, it becomes a way of life when it is practiced.

And Doug is in full agreement; just here stressing some of the non-religious aspects of Buddhism. Interestingly, Lion’s Roar also asked that question in 2016 and found some interesting answers:

Our three experts, Charles Prebish (“Yes”), Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (“No”), and Joan Sutherland (“Kind of”), join the debate.

And, of course, I’ve written on the topic a bit here over the years, as in this 2013 discussion of Michael McGee’s work, as well as a survey of some great contemporary academic philosophers trying to pull Buddhism into philosophy departments in May 2016.

In any case, have a look at Doug’s video above, or his full YouTube channel here. Any of you who frequent my “books” page will have already seen one of Doug’s most popular videos, describing some key books for understanding early Buddhism.

As with many things, this particular approach to Buddhism might not be for you. There are plenty of other Buddhism(s), some that are similarly secular, others not. As I’ve said before, I’ve seen many different kinds help people and “work” in their lives and despite all my efforts, I have yet to gain omniscience to tell which one is really, really, really the best. I entered into Buddhism via a Western Buddhist order, then to Tibetan (I still think Tsongkhapa is amazing), then into Vipassana where I mostly still am, alongside a very happy practice of modernized Zen and Unitarian Universalism.

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