I've mentioned elsewhere on this here blog that, when I first came to Burma I was struck by the plain fact that the Burmese, bless their hearts, were totally oblivious to how thickly, obviously culturally conditioned they were. Recently (I'm writing this in Yangon, although by the time it's published I'll be in Bali) I've been seeing much of it: For example the peculiar fact that monks are supposed to sit on a sitting cloth when riding in a car—Burmese monks are sure to have their sitting cloth ready to spread on the car seat, and laypeople sometimes become uneasy if I don't use one. My robes are clean, and the car seat looks clean, so I don't see the point, and often don't bother to have a sitting cloth with me. Sometimes the good folks providing me with transportation have difficulty accepting this, and there may be a last-minute scramble to find a towel or some such for me to sit on in the car. As another example, yesterday I reminded the host of the place where I'm staying that fresh fruit with seeds in it has to be "made allowable" (=damaged), otherwise it's against the rules for a monk to eat it. So he said, "I'll get a leaf." A little later, while I was eating, he showed up with a leaf for making some grapes "allowable." I personally do not see how damaging a leaf held against the fruit, rather than damaging the fruit itself, makes anything allowable; but my host is 91 years old, and I love him like a grandfather, so I didn't want to make trouble. So I quietly handed him a bag of grapes. He stood there in silence, holding the leaf against a grape, waiting. Then I experienced a minor bout of perceptiveness and asked him, "Are you waiting for me to say 'kappiyam karohi' (that is, in Pali, 'make it allowable')?" He assured me that I had to say it. I assured him in return that it wasn't necessary, but, as I really didn't want to trouble him, I said it anyway. Whereupon he simultaneously tore the leaf pressed against that grape and said "kappiyam bhante" ("It is allowable, sir"). Then he handed me back the grapes which, in my opinion, were no more allowable than they were before. Even so, I ate one, so that his efforts were not entirely in vain.
But if one were to venture to suggest to a thickly culturally conditioned Burmese Buddhist that his or her behavior is in fact thickly culturally conditioned, he or she very probably wouldn't see it at all. It would elicit a confused, uncomprehending look, or maybe a response like, "What do you mean? We follow the teachings of an omniscient enlightened being, who obviously knew what was the correct way to live. It's just common sense. You Westerners are the culturally conditioned ones."
And then of course I came back to America after many years of being immersed in Burmese culture…and I was struck by the plain fact that Americans, bless their hearts, are just as thickly, obviously culturally conditioned as the Burmese—although in some very different ways. Once when I was in Bellingham a leader of a local meditation society told me that, although people were slowly warming to me at the time, my generalizations regarding the members were seen by the group as objectionable. (This statement of his also was a generalization, which apparently he didn't notice.) But the fact remained that every single American member of that meditation society resembled every other member much more than they would resemble any member of, say, a Burmese village Dhamma organization. It may be that Americans more than anyone else want to see themselves as unique individuals acting in accordance with their own free will, yet they, like virtually everyone else in the world, are pervaded by and led by cultural conditioning that they simply do not notice.
We tend to be oblivious to much, probably most, of our own basic human nature also—a kind of genetic cultural conditioning. Boys like girls, girls like babies, babies like sweet food better than they like bitter food, we all experience anger, greed, fear, boredom, pride, exhilaration, and on and on, usually without understanding why we are this way instead of some other way, or understanding that being this way isn't plainly neutral and sensible. "Well of course we like babies because they're so cute," but why is a baby so irresistibly cute, and not, say, an old person? "Well of course I hate and fear snakes because they're so creepy," but why do so many of us automatically feel this way? I have read that the human brain actually has a special area for identifying snakes, and probably for getting nervous about them. We probably have a baby-liking center also. Almost certainly we have a sweet-food-liking center. We are saturated by animal instincts, automatic reflexes, and cultural conditioning (much of that last fed into us by a rather Machiavellian system which is trying to manipulate us into doing what it wants us to do, much as Mother Nature manipulates us into surviving long enough to have babies), and usually we don't notice it because we are so used to it. It's like a fish not noticing that it is wet. We think that we are free, but really we are not.
The situation is similar with accents when we speak. Once I met a South African man who was married to an American woman from California. He was amused by the fact that his wife considered him to have an accent, and herself not to have one. He assured her that she had just as much of an accent as he did, but she didn't see it, or hear it, at all. Presumably, the Queen of England has an accent when she speaks English, and people from Brooklyn, New York or Mobile, Alabama may have accents, but American newscasters and people from the West Coast do not. How did that happen? How did even the English acquire an accent when they speak English, but not American news reporters?
The fact is that people are people, and although we have different individual differences and different cultural differences, our similarities greatly outweigh the differences. We're all members of the same species. Thus even the fact that we all (well, almost all of us) consider our own way to be simple common sense, while everyone else may be superstitious, ignorant, or just irrationally contrary, is a pretty much universal facet of human nature. We don't hear our own accent, and that also is just plain human nature.
Bearing this in mind, two good fellows way over on the continent of North America have recently been telling me about Stephen Batchelor, who has been calling for a new kind of secular, non-dogmatic Buddhism appropriate for modern times. They say he invokes the Atthakavagga, which is a major part of my Buddhist "Bible," and which asserts that a Dhamma practitioner, a person living the Holy Life, should not believe anything—which thus would be more suitable to the modern Western mind than to a traditional Asian one.
I can easily agree with the call for a different form of Buddhism for the West—unless somehow large numbers of people suddenly get the urge to live like Indians of the ancient Ganges Valley. However, the "secular" part may be somewhat problematic…consider the following verses from the Paramatthaka Sutta which nicely represent a "point of view" recommended repeatedly by the Atthakavagga:
In the seen, in the heard, in morality and observances, or in the felt,
He having seized upon that very thing there
Views all others to be inferior.
But adept ones call that a tie
Dependent upon which he views another to be inferior;
So upon the seen, the heard, or the felt,
Or upon morality and observances a mendicant would not depend.
Also he would not conceive a view in the world
Based on knowledge or also on morality and observances.
He would not represent himself as equal,
Nor would he imagine to be inferior, or superior.
Western relative disregard for morality and observances, and for religion in general, may actually be helpful with regard to detaching from such things; yet if people are living a crazy busy lifestyle, running in hectic circles most of the time, then such utter, radical detachment, even from knowledge, even from our own senses, will be like scaling an iron cliff—not exactly impossible, yet extraordinarily challenging to say the least. I'm pretty sure some laypeople do manage it, though.
But this comes back to the idea of most people being fish unaware of their own wetness. As a general rule even veteran meditators, even meditation instructors, tend to be oblivious to much of the baggage of cultural conditioning and implicit assumptions that they carry around with them. Being non-dogmatic applies not only to standardized religion and formal philosophy; it applies to everything, absolutely everything, including secular value judgements, unexamined assumptions about right and wrong that we picked up in our childhood, and much else besides, including the very notion that we exist, that we have a "self." This is a major reason why Gotama Buddha had his most advanced disciples wandering around as homeless beggars—by stripping life down to a bare minimum and releasing oneself from most of the worldly obligations that keep a person too busy to seriously (or playfully, but nevertheless consistently) reflect upon one's entire field of experience throughout the ever-changing present moment, a person is much more likely to succeed in being non-dogmatic and in not believing anything, not even "I exist." So if monasticism is rejected in the West, at the very least there should be some option for radical simplification, perhaps in intentional communities like ashrams—but not, however, in luxury meditation resorts that pander to much of our conditioning, thereby not encouraging us to see it. To be "secular," and at the same time to be without any belief or attachment, is almost self-contradictory. There must be some clarity and stillness, as well as some detachment from The System, for us to see our invisible burdens and limits. It may be that anything is possible, including a business person with a hectic schedule becoming fully enlightened, yet there should be some possibility, maybe even encouragement, to try it with a minimum of unnecessary handicaps.
It requires consistent mindfulness, plus a bit of bravery (or reckless desperation), more than just an hour or two of relatively quiet sitting per day (and interestingly the Atthakavagga mentions sitting meditation almost not at all), to allow us to see our own autopilot's programming and limitations sufficiently to let go of it all. It is difficult to let go of something which you do not even know that you have, yet which you are habitually clinging to. It is easier to wake up from a dream if we know that we are dreaming. It is easier to escape from a prison if we can see that we are in one. Otherwise we are just trying to upgrade our detention cell, and improve the living conditions of the prison. Really, there's nothing necessarily wrong with this. This is essentially the human condition. This is the world. Most people, including most monastics, simply haven't had their fill of Samsara yet, so to speak, and aren't ready to fling themselves into the unknown Void of total non-reliance, which is true liberation. We do the best we can manage. But still, if real Dhamma or Dharma is to thrive in the West, to be a true, living spiritual system, it must be equipped to take us all the way to liberation if we are ready for it, and should give us the best possible chance at it. This means, very probably, that there will have to be some accommodation and support for renunciants of some sort, for people living a radically simplified lifestyle, even if they don't shave their head and wear a dun-colored toga. Even if the new Buddhism has no monastics, it will still have to have thoroughgoing spiritual radicals.