Stephen Batchelor has been fairly controversial in western buddhist circles, even if many practicing buddhists don’t know who he is, because if they read at all it’s not much beyond the platitudes of the Dalai Lama. What’s at stake, though, can be gleaned from the titles of his previous books, Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. In Confession especially, and now too in his latest, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Batchelor does for the Buddha what Reza Aslan recently did for Jesus in Zealot: reexamining basic core texts while making a historical study of what society on the Indian subcontinent was like during Gotama’s time.
Batchelor became a full-fledged Tibetan monk at an early age, but grew disillusioned with the general beliefs in gods and supernatural powers—that is, that Tibetan buddhism was/is more of a religion than a spiritual practice. So, he jumped ship and actively practiced zen in Korea for many years. When that too left him a little disillusioned, he returned to Europe, where he has gained respectability as an editor at the magazine Tricycle: A Buddhist Review. He has since practiced what he calls a ‘secular buddhism’, continuing to study the earliest buddhist texts in order to learn for himself what the Buddha might have actually said, versus what’s been tacked on later. Or, to put it another way, as my friend Karen puts it, “He got rid of all the crap.”
This might surprise and even shock people not familiar with buddhism. Does buddhism in fact contain crap? But this has been my own question for a while now, and I don’t think I’m alone. While meditation does seems to help us learn how to be more patient and perhaps compassionate, I for sure don’t think that there’s a god, or goddess, even if she’s a beautiful young woman with green skin. Nor do I believe in reincarnation. Nor do I think the emphasis in zen (where I’ve spent most of my zafu time) on a passive acceptance, or even a denial, of life is healthy, or a form of supposed ‘Right Living.’ Not to mention having to get up at Zero Crazy Dark Thirty to meditate, as if ‘Enlightenment’ only happens at certain times of the day.
Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is half memoir and half analysis, and for that reason is, perhaps, more accessible than After Buddhism. Confession was my intro to Batchelor, and I might recommend it if you’re new to him. On the other hand, After Buddhism takes that critical analysis, fleshes it out, and expands on it, and is therefore maybe the more important work. Some of the stuff Batchelor discusses is kind of heady (it’s philosophy after all) though he wisely divides the book up, alternating chapters between straight up discussion on ethics with five key ‘characters’ that appear alongside the Buddha (or, Gotama as Batchelor prefers to call him, again to de-emphasize the godlike implications) in the early Pali dialogues: Mahānāma: The Convert, Pasenadi: The King, Sunakkhatta: The Traitor, Jīvaka: The Doctor, and Ãnana: The Attendant. These chapters add some much-needed narrative and historical perspective. For example, we know that Pasenadi actually existed, and that he, and other characters, studied at a famous university at the time. Since Gotama came from a royal family, Batchelor infers that either he too probably attended this university or at least was familiar the philosophical goings-on at the time. That is, that myth you’ve probably heard about Gotama being held in in his father’s palace so as not to see the bad things going on in the world? Not true, though fyi, that myth does appear in Pali texts, but it’s a story about another Prince. I.e. it was a myth even in Gotama’s time.
The heady stuff is heady, though not un-understandable, and some basic ideas are very easy to understand, both in and of themselves, and also why/how they challenge the buddhist orthodoxy. So, for example, Gotama’s avoidance of discussion about theology and metaphysics: He was not concerned with what happens after we die. His concern was how to deal with suffering now in this life. And I say ‘deal with’ intentionally, because, as Batchelor explains, there’s no way to get rid of, or transcend the bad stuff: You just deal with it. You can teach yourself how to avoid automatic bodily and mental, and even emotional, reactions to bad stuff:
We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.
When an inclination to say something cruel occurs….can you resist acting on that impulse? If you can, you have succeeded.
You learn to resist acting on fear and anger through meditation, which helps you to see things in perspective, from a distance. You can be angry, but when you sit for a half-hour or hour in your angriness, you can ‘see’ your anger, your feelings but you’re also seeing that you don’t have to do anything about them.
Maybe the biggest challenge to buddhist orthodoxy Bachelor offers is challenging the idea of ‘truth/Truth’ (either capitalized or not). Which is kinda huge, because most everyone at all interested in buddhism knows The Four Noble Truths. I can’t go into all of it here, but Batchelor’s analysis of the original Pali texts has lead him to the conclusion those ‘truths’ were added on later, and that what Gotama taught was four ‘tasks’:
Suffering (dukkha) is to be comprehended (pariññã).
The arising (samudaya) is to be let go of (pahāna).
The ceasing (nirodha) is to be beheld (sacchikāta).
The path (magga) is to be cultivated (bhāvanā).
In more colloquial language, the task can be summarized as a set of injunctions:
Let go of what arises.
See its ceasing.
Despite that fact that I have met a few buddhists who do embrace life, never have I seen that idea in any other buddhist text. That ‘injunction’ certainly goes against the idea of karma and reincarnation, which ultimately places emphasis on the supposed next life. It also goes against zen orthodoxy and power structures by challenging the idea that monks who retreat into monasteries are ‘better’ than or more superior to us laypeople out in the Real World.
Challenging the idea that buddhism is about ‘truth/Truth’ also challenges some even basic beliefs in the zen world. The zennonites don’t believe in gods, though many, surprisingly to me, do believe in reincarnation, but I’m talking about what’s been adopted, at least here in the West, as a basic buddhist text, The Heart Sutra, which is chanted regularly (ritualistically?) at all three of the zen communities I’ve meditated at around the country. The idea, Batchelor explains, is that that it, 1. very much claims that there are certain truths, and 2. that there are two of them, which contradict and coexist with each other:
Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, and emptiness is not other than form.
Batchelor writes that:
This passage has become one of the most widely quoted and pondered of all Buddhist texts translated into English. For many Western Buddhists, it might be the only discourse attributed to the Buddha that they have ever read (even though the Buddha sits in deep meditation throughout the sutra and says only, “Well said well said,” at the end). Yet few of those who admire its paradoxical, Zen-like pithiness are aware that it is an attempt to solve an unnecessary problem….The author of The Heart Sutra takes it for granted that “emptiness” and “form” denote two fundamental elements of spheres of reality, an assumption quite alien to the early discourses. Avolokiteśvara’s task is to explain to the dim-witted Sāriputra how these two spheres can be reconciled with each other. Simply declaring the conventional truths of the world to be identical with the ultimate truth of emptiness does not explain anything. It merely expresses a preference for a dualist alternative (identity) over its opposite (difference). The vital question of how these truths are identical is left hanging.
Speaking as someone who has chanted The Heart Sutra a lot, I can also say that if it’s discussed at all (like in a ‘Dharma Talk’ by some supposed know-it-all to us know-nothing laypeople), it’s never been adequately explained. Though honestly? Nobody seems to care. Most people at any of the zen centers I’ve been to seem all too willing to not question anything and accept that those in power must know what they’re talking about. And in doing so end up doing exactly what they (and I) dislike about most christians. So yeah, radical.
Batchelor is challenging the power structure of western (and eastern) buddhism: Us regular folks are just as suited to practice buddhism, despite the fact that those in power would like us to feel dumb by wielding their supposed knowledge of obscure texts that were added in later. But if that sounds too grr-rebellious for you, Batchelor’s point is really a positive, and fairly easy, one to grasp: Buddhism, core buddhism, was is and should be a philosophy very much applicable to our time: it’s about how to live, ethically.
Even if I or Batchelor can’t make you curious about buddhism, there is something here for westerners and/or those in the Abrahamic religions and/or their righteous atheist opponents: Batchelor gives us a different way to look at a religion, i.e. strip all the crap and get to the core philosophy. Does God exist? Who cares? What really matters is how to live a good life, ethically. What did Jesus say about that? (Hint: You might start at The Golden Rule: Thou Shalt Not Be An Asshole).
I at first hesitated to recommend After Buddhism to the buddhist-curious newcomer (and you could still not go wrong with trying Confession of a Buddhist Atheist first), but in fact for both beginners and folks who are regular sitters but who are still curious and healthily doubtful, this might be the best place to begin, or begin again, in learning how to live an ethical life. The only downside is that, like me, you might be less inclined to put up with the dogma and orthodoxy at your local temple or center. But that’s fine. Skip the Dharma Talks, they’re always crowded anyways, the important thing is the meditation. Then head down to the cafe or pub with your fellow secular buddhists and celebrate life.