The Four Great Tasks:
Rethinking the Dharma
for a Secular Age
an Online Course
with Stephen Batchelor
Some twenty-five centuries after the Buddha first “turned the wheel of the Dharma,” his message continues to inspire people across the globe, including those living in predominantly secular societies.
With reference to the earliest canonical sources, in this course Stephen Batchelor will explore how one might re-imagine the Dharma from the ground up. He will seek to articulate a coherent ethical, contemplative, and philosophical vision of Buddhism for our times.
By presenting the “four noble truths” as four great tasks to be practiced in each life situation, Stephen will lay out the foundations of a contemporary culture of awakening that is no longer rooted in the traditional beliefs of the Buddhist religion.
This is a self–paced programme that you can work through as your daily life allows.
Module 1 – Embracing Life and the Human Condition
Stephen will use the acronym ELSA – Embrace Life, Let Go, Stop Grasping, Act, as a structure for embracing life, letting go of reactivity, stopping grasping and cultivating a path.
The noble truths are often presented as statements that we are asked to accept as true rather than false. In this module Stephen abandons that approach and, instead, thinks of them as a sequence of tasks.
Stephen will look at how the cultivation of empathy develops, allowing us to become more tolerant and open to the fact that things are not essentially me or mine.
He will then discuss how a supportive environment can enhance meditation, working with the challenge of bringing the practice into life away from the cushion. How can consciousness and awareness start to infuse with everything we do?
He will explore how meditation can help you become aware and conscious of the facets of experience that you either habitually deny or ignore, and will see how uncertainty about time of death can bring about a deeper sense of the preciousness and value of life itself.
Module 2 – Letting Go of Reactivity
The Buddha spoke of reactivity as an aridness where nothing can grow. However, reactivity is very natural in human beings. In this module, we’ll dispel the myth that being a good meditator means we shouldn’t keep reacting in the same way, leading to guilt and further suffering. We don’t need to stamp out reactivity and achieve a state of inner perfection.
We’ll explore dependent origination; how the contact of the senses with experience gives rise to a feeling (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) and how that pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling triggers a reaction. We’ll also acknowledge that our neurobiology makes it virtually impossible for us to always prevent our habitual reactions.
The goal is to be with reactivity in a different way. We can create more space and begin to understand our patterns, rather than being seduced by thoughts, feelings etc. Stephen will explore the Buddha’s description of how mindfulness meditation can create channels of irrigation, with the water metaphorically nourishing us.
Module 3 – Stop Grasping
Stephen explores the Buddha’s description of Nirvana not as some end goal, but as a quiet, open frame of mind that we can experience repeatedly, as we learn to let go of reactivity. Responding to life’s difficulties from this place is, according to the Buddha, genuine freedom. Furthermore, it is available to everyone.
Nirvana is often described as ‘emptiness’. This is often presented as something we need to understand; however, Stephen presents evidence that the Buddha described emptiness as a space in which we come to dwell, and a way of being in the world. It is the freedom not to react.
Stephen then looks more closely at the terms ‘the deathless’ and ‘the unconditioned’, which are also often used in Dharma teachings. These experiences are often presented as remote and mystical states. Stephen argues, however, that the Buddha taught that, like nirvana and emptiness, they are actually possibilities open to all of us in each moment of our ordinary lives, and are accessible as we let go of reactivity.
Finally, Stephen takes a close look at the term Buddha-nature – what does this actually mean?
He presents a rich exploration of the Sanskrit term originally used by the Buddha – Tathāgatagarbha – and argues that this is most helpfully thought of as a description of our potential to wake up, rather than an enlightened nature buried within us waiting to get out.
Module 4 – Act
In this module, Stephen will look at cultivating a path for our lives; how we see, speak, act, work, focus attention, concentrate and are mindful.
Stephen will dispel the notion of formal practice being in some way more important than bringing our practice into our lives, and he’ll explore how ELSA can be lived and integrated into every situation.
“Path as a practice” is important in many spiritual traditions. We’ll look at how a path is a “purposeful process”, how previous travellers kept the path open, and our responsibility to keep it open for others.
Finally, we’ll explore stream entry and how to cultivate the self-reliance we need to be able to flourish in this world.
Along with the 4 recorded modules, there will also be 4 recorded interactive sessions from a previous live course.
We have had thousands of students take our courses online. Many of them have commented that they’ve felt a strong sense of intimacy and connection with the teacher being right in front of them onscreen and looking directly at them.
If you resonate with this material, would like to study with likeminded practitioners from around the world and from different cultures, then you will not be disappointed.
If at any point in the first 30 days after purchase you feel the course isn’t providing value or you’re not happy with the content, we will offer a complete refund.
We hope you enjoy the offering.
STEPHEN BATCHELOR is a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, best known for his secular or agnostic approach to Buddhism. Stephen considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs. Through his writings, translations and teaching, Stephen engages in a critical exploration of Buddhism’s role in the modern world.
He is the translator and author of various books and articles on Buddhism including the bestselling Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead 1997) and Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil (Riverhead, 2004). His most recent publication is After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (Yale University Press, 2015).