The Study and Practice of “The 4”

In his book after buddhism Stephen Batchelor rethought the teachings (dharma) of the Buddha for a secular age. Or let us say the ones that are most likely of the historical Buddha’s own voice.

Before I am explaining what “The 4” are about it is appropriate to explain what secular means in this context. We could distinguish three perspectives on “secular” which provide and constitute a common ground for ethics and practice thoroughly in this world independently from any belief system.

On Wikipedia you find the following explanations:

  1. Secularand secularityderive from the Latin word saeculum which meant “of a generation, belonging to an age” or denoted a period of about one hundred years.[2] In the ancient world, saeculum was not defined in contrast to any sacred concerns and had a freestanding usage in Latin.[2] It was in Christian Latin of medieval times, that saeculum was used for distinguishing this temporal age of the world from the eternal realm of God.[2]
  2. Secularity (adjective form secular,[1]from Latin saeculum meaning “worldly”, “of a generation”, “temporal”, or a span of about 100 years[2]) is the state of being separate from religion, or of not being exclusively allied with or against any particular religion. Historically, the word “secular” was not related or linked to religion, but was a freestanding term in Latin which would relate to any mundane endeavor.
  3. Secular authority, …, as distinct from clerical authority, or matters under church control.

To me, having this in mind a secular teaching, ethics, and practice are grounded in and focused on this world only, the here and now of our own experiences as family members, workers, and humans walking on this earth as long as we are alive.

A secular study and practice is therefore independent of the traditional religious beliefs especially those of metaphysical characters. By secular practice it is that what we do with our bodies and minds on a regular basis in order to improve our selves with regard to comprehend suffering in its manifold appearances, not only the one I and you experience but also the suffering we face as collectives at a larger scale in our cities, societies or at the systemic level of our planet.

The study and practice of “The 4” according to my own 25 years of experience concern all aspects of life. Thus skilfully and wise applied they to lead an integrated life. The 4 tasks consist of:

  • Embrace life – [comprehending suffering].
  • Let go of what arises – [letting go of reactivity].
  • See its ceasing – [beholding its ceasing].
  • Act! – [cultivating the path].

By “cultivating the path” it is meant the path of eight branches outlined by the historical Buddha in his first sermon “Turning the Wheel of Dhamma [dharma]” given at Baranasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana, roughly 2.500 years ago.

The path with eight branches is this: appropriate vision, appropriate thought, appropriate speech, appropriate action, appropriate livelihood, appropriate effort, appropriate mindfulness, appropriate concentration.

Accordingly here an excerpt of the first sermon:
“Such is dukkha [suffering}. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.

Such is the arising [reactiviy]. It can be let go of. It has been let go of.
Such is the ceasing. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.
Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.

Meaningful questions related to the “The 4” and the 8-fold path maybe:

  • What is this practice about?
  • What are their theoretical, practical, ethical, and philosophical groundings and implications?
  • Is it a foundation of theory and practice which can be applied here and now?
  • Is there a built-in feedback loop given in which the 4th task “cultivating the path” leads to the 1st task again … ad infinitum?
  • Are the practices of “The 4” and the 8-fold path an injunction to act and not a prescribed faith to believe in?
  • Is there a realistic chance that you are growing your own individuated authority by applying the practices outlined here?
  • What rebellious reactions do you face by reading the above and reflecting on it?
  • Has your inner rebel shown up so far?

When we talk about profound innovation and change with reference to our current most pressing challenges in the world we inhabit, we see different approaches tackling different system levels. What secular theories and practices on change and innovation have we seen so far in the last decades? I consider for example theories and approaches such as Theory U (Presencing) and OpenSpace as falling into the secular category of practices which is equally valid for the Study and Practice of “The 4” including the 8-fold path.

Let me give an example: As core part of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U we find besides the extensive theoretical foundation a basic practice of “going through the ‘U’. Simply expressed it means:

  • Observe, observe, observe
  • Retreat and reflect
  • Act in an instant!

The Study and Practice of “The 4” as conceptualized in after buddhism and shown above are:

  • Embrace life – [comprehending suffering].
  • Let go of what arises – [letting go of reactivity].
  • See its ceasing – [beholding its ceasing].
  • Act! – [cultivating the path].

Is there a common pattern between the “U” and “The 4” discernible? I came to the conclusion, yes, there is.

The practical, ethical, and philosophical foundation of “The 4” and the path with its eight branches speak to me profoundly to my existential questions I am holding and developing as a human being who is going to die but not knowing when. For me this has become a proven and working practice for my daily life, in my private life and in organisations I used to work in.

As Stephen Batchelor distilled from the Pali canon the historical Buddha envisioned not only a flourishing life for the individual. If we can trust the early discourses he envisioned clearly the rebuilding of cities and societies based on The Study and Practice of “The 4”. This makes it utterly relevant as a foundation for my work as a change agent.

In this little essay I tried to bring forth and across that the original teachings of the Buddha have nothing to do with a belief system of any kind. The Buddha, and thanks to Stephen Batchelor for rethinking the dharma for a secular age, was interested in understanding our experiences in this moment, in this world by thereby improving one’s life situation, individually and collectively, so that we can thrive personally and as increasingly awakened societies informed by the practical, ethical and philosophical background of “The 4”.

My question is: How can ‘The Study and Practice of “The 4’ become a mainstream practice in our (organisational) lifes? Let us start and begin where we are here and now to create the solar age for us and the world after us! This should become our legacy.