“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him, The man would say, ‘I would not pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed’.
“All this would still not be known to that man and in the meanwhile he would die. So too, Maunkyaputta, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.” (1)
The Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor, quoting these early words, affirms a Buddha committed to “an existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism” concerned “with anguish and the ending of anguish”. He laments the historical tendency of Buddhism to lose this agnostic dimension and to become an institutionalised religion. He believes that “this transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. … The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion.”
At the same time, the force of the word ‘agnosticism’ has been lost in modern secular culture, becoming complicit with “the attitude that legitimises an indulgent consumerism and and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media”. T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, understood agnosticism as “a method realised through the rigorous application of a single principle”. This was to follow our reason as far as it will take us, and not to pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is a principle that runs through western culture from Socrates to the axioms of modern science. Buddha and Huxley both advocate a method rather than a creed, opening the possibility of a conversation between them.
What does this tell me about my own path now? Contemplative inquiry is a method. It is based on phenomenology as a subjective life-world investigation, and mine tells me that fruitful spiritual practices do not depend on the metaphysical views that are often linked to them. I can interpret and value everything that I have done within a naturalistic framework. It is a significant conclusion for my inquiry.
This does not in itself invalidate the metaphysical views. I have simply withdrawn from my personal engagement with them, except to the extent that they are embedded in the authentic experiences and stories of other people, past and present. I can still value and learn from those. I find imaginative engagement with other points of view quite easy. But in my own spiritual understanding, I seem now to be with Huxley and the Buddha.
Contemplative inquiry is a valued method but I would not call it my path. My path is Druidry, and I have been re-establishing this consciously since the Winter Solstice of 2019. The default position of the Druidry I was trained in is a romantic theosophy, though one in active evolution, rich in variation and re-imagining. In my personal journey, I am now clearly in a naturalistic and secular space, animist in a sense (2) that is “‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.” As a result of my inquiry, my Druid note is different than it was before I began.
I am clearer, lighter, more alive. It feels easier to experience the abundance in simplicity that I value. By letting the mystery be, I can immerse myself more deeply in the textured life of the world. Leaning in to naturalistic world view, I expand my sense of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’, and my Druid path feels stronger.
(1) Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1998 (First published in the USA in 1997 by Riverhead Books)
(2) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013) see also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/