of "Buddhism Without Beliefs"
Stephen Batchelor's book, "Buddhism Without Beliefs" has attracted
a lot of attention in Buddhist circles. In many respects, this is
an important book. It may be seen as a lucid manifesto of a tendency
in modern, western Buddhism that has been gaining ground in recent
years. This is the kernel of a new school of modernized, rationalized
Buddhism; in essence a Protestant Buddhism. While this tendency
is seen as a welcome one by many, it is worth examining more closely
to understand just what is being put forward.
The book, and the whole trend of "new Buddhism" that it represents
is inspired by the confrontation of the Dharma with the dynamic
cultural heritage of the West. Buddhism arose in the very different
cultural milieu of pre-modern Asia and now it is establishing itself
in the western world there are inevitable tensions between the elements
of the two different world-views. It is a valid, and an important,
undertaking for modern western Buddhists to attempt to resolve these
tensions and make the Dharma a living tradition here in the West.
This is what Mr. Batchelor attempts to do.
Mr. Batchelor is enthusiastic about many aspects of the western
tradition and words like democratic, secular, agnostic and scientific
occur often, with an unexamined positive valuation. These are contrasted
to the perceived negative values of what he terms "religious Buddhism",
that is the Buddhism as understood and practiced by all Buddhists
prior to the last few decades. The author is very definitely a product
of the Enlightenment (in the historic, not the mystical sense),
the Protestant Reformation and the democratic and scientific revolutions.
It is significant for understanding his thesis that he takes this
complex of values as primary; indeed, in every case where there
is a perceived conflict between the Buddhist teachings and these
western values, it is the Buddhist teachings which must be modified
or abandoned to force a reconciliation.
Of this complex of values, the chief thrust of the book is on that
of agnostic skepticism. In particular, it is karma and rebirth that
we are urged to be skeptical about. Mr. Batchelor argues, in fact,
that this outlook is entirely in accord with the spirit of the Dharma.
Central to his argument is the text of the Kalama Sutta, which he
twice quotes as a chapter opening. This is a well known Sutta that
the Buddha delivered to a group of laymen who were doubtful as to
what teachings to believe when so many philosophers taught contradictory
theories. This is often used as a basis for validating a skeptical
approach to the Dharma. It is worth considering what this
text actually does say about accepting and rejecting teachings.
The Buddha lists a number of invalid reasons for accepting a view.
These include being misled by hearsay or tradition or by proficiency
in the scriptures, but also, please note, by logic and inference.
The Buddha then gives some valid reasons for accepting a teaching;
these are that the teaching when put into practice conduces to one's
well-being and happiness and, significantly, that the teaching is
one "praised by the wise." Further, when one finds such a teaching,
then one should "undertake and abide in it." This is hardly a recommendation
for a persistent agnosticism, nor is it a blanket condemnation of
Another thrust of Mr. Batchelor's argument seems to be that he sees
himself as reducing Buddhism to the essential teachings of the Four
Noble Truths and cutting out dogmatic accretions unnecessary for
salvation. But when we examine his specific criticism of the traditional
teachings, this appears rather hollow. Consider his chapter on the
Four Noble Truths. He quite rightly emphasizes how each of the Four
has an associated method of approach; we are charged by the Buddha
to understand suffering, abandon craving, realize cessation and
cultivate the path. However, he goes on to make the rather surprising
claim that this teaching has been all but forgotten "relegated to
the margins of specialist doctrinal knowledge." This claim
is made, it seems to bolster an argument that "religious Buddhism"
has turned the Four Truths in a static set of "propositions to be
believed." This critique applies more to superficial popular accounts
that to the full-bodied traditional teaching; these four tasks have
not been forgotten. It seems that here Mr. Batchelor is setting
up a straw man to attack. Much of his critique of "religious Buddhism"
seems to be directed against this caricature of his own devising
and not against real living traditions.
In regard to his criticism of the rebirth idea, while admitting
that the Buddha himself was not agnostic on this issue (p.35,) Mr.
Batchelor maintains that he was "still constrained by the world
view of his time." (p.94) There are fundamental assumptions
being made here that cannot be shared by most traditional Buddhists.
One is the implied trivialization of the Buddha's enlightenment.
Another is that the modern materialist world view is superior to
the metaphysical understanding of ancient India. While these
objections may have no force for agnostic modernizing Buddhists,
they should still address the question as to why the Buddha was
able to challenge many other crucial aspects of the prevailing paradigm
such as the existence of an atman or the acceptability of the caste
system. It is simply not good enough to say that the Buddha accepted
rebirth because it was the prevailing view; he demonstrated profound
abilities to forge new directions with his teaching and would not
have accepted something so crucial unreflectively.
A central aspect to "Buddhism Without Beliefs" is the promotion
of agnosticism as a cardinal Buddhist virtue. Mr. Batchelor is careful
to distinguish this from what he calls skepticism and defines
it as an honest admission that one doesn't know. This position,
so defined, has a certain integrity to it but how compatible
is it with the Buddha's own teachings? While it is true that the
Buddha exhorted us not to cling to any views, including those of
his teaching, and to investigate reality for ourselves, these directives
are not by any means the whole of his teaching and should be taken
in context with that whole. It is a mistake to take one aspect of
the Dharma and ignore the rest; this provides a one-sided understanding.
One aspect that Mr. Batchelor ignores is the importance that the
Buddha placed on Right View. In Anguttara XVII the Buddha says that
he knows of no other thing so conducive to the arising of wholesome
states as Right View. In one of the frequently occurring formulas
of Right View, as for example in Majjhima 41, the Buddha defines
it as, among other things, a belief in karma and in "this world
and the other world." Furthermore, there is much discussion in the
suttas of Wrong View, one variety of which is precisely that of
the materialists. "Since this self is material, made up of the four
great elements, the product of mother and father, at the breaking
up of the body it is annihilated and perishes, and does not exist
after death." (Digha 1)
As an aside, it should be pointed out that advocates of a materialist
Buddhism often claim that their view is different from this ancient
annihilationism because it doesn't postulate a self. While it would
take us too far afield to examine this argument in detail, suffice
it to say that from a traditional Buddhist understanding, any doctrine
of materialism must have an implied self-view. In other words, it
is incompatible with a true understanding of not-self. This is because
of, firstly, an identification with the single aggregate of bodily
form and secondly, because of the belief in annihilation of consciousness
at death which presupposes an existent entity to be annihilated
(even if this is not articulated.)
Another way in which an agnostic Buddhism violates fundamental teachings
is the imbalance in the development of the faculties. One of the
five spiritual faculties is saddha, translated as faith or confidence.
This must be balanced with its complement and opposite number, panna
or discriminative wisdom. Too much faith without any wisdom is superstition,
too much discrimination without faith leads to cunning ( "a disease
as hard to cure as one caused by medicine.") That is, when we set
our own reason upon a pedestal and denigrate the enlightenment of
the Buddha with our skepticism, we can create our own false Dharma
in service to the desires.
This approach is unwelcome to the rationalizing modernist trend
of agnostic Buddhism. But it is one that was taught by the Buddha
and has served millions of devout Buddhists well for twenty-five
centuries. As noted previously, karma and rebirth are among
the elements of Buddhism that Mr. Batchelor questions. He regards
these as not crucial to the core teaching.
And yet we have seen that an acceptance of karma is central to the
very definition of Right View. Mr. Batchelor rightly states that
karma is intention but he is wrong to draw from this the implied
conclusion that it has nothing to do with results in the world or
in states of rebirth. The Buddha most often spoke about ethics entirely
in terms of rebirth. Doing such and such a wholesome action will
result in "a happy rebirth, a good destination, even unto heaven."
Doing such and such an unwholesome action will lead to " an unhappy
rebirth, a bad destination, even unto hell." Mr. Batchelor
says "ethical integrity is rooted in the sense of who we are and
what kind of reality we inhabit." (p.45) This is true, and it is
one reason the Buddha emphasized a belief in karma and rebirth,
that is to say that ethical actions have results. And as a vital
corollary, that death is not an ending to these results.
On a deeper level, a world-view informed by the reality of the terrible
wheel of sangsara is absolutely central to a profound approach to
practice. This has been the existential basis upon which all schools
of Buddhism have been built. The work needed to realize the Dharma
in its depths is not trivial. If one bases her view on materialist
assumptions of annihilation after death, where is the motivation
to wrestle with the profoundest issues? If all alike are annihilated,
what possible difference
could Dharma practice make?
It is most telling that Mr. Batchelor sees a belief in rebirth as
a "consolation." He recognizes the incongruity of this by calling
it a "curious twist that westerners find [it so]" (p35) Nevertheless
he claims that "an agnostic Buddhist looks to the Dharma for metaphors
of existential confrontation rather than consolation." (p.18) It
is only a very superficial understanding of rebirth that finds any
consolation therein. It is not an escapist fantasy, but an understanding
that confronts the terrible realities of birth, old-age, sickness
and death head on. Anyone who has contemplated these ideas in depth
begins to have a detachment from the world of sensuality and form,
How can that which is repeated endlessly and always ends in the
same sorry way have any appeal?
It is more likely the fantasy of annihilation that is the consolation.
One can pretend to be brave and accept extinction but thereby escape
all the awful consequences of karma (or so one may imagine.) The
picture is not as simple or as one-sided as "Buddhism Without Beliefs"
would have us believe.
While it is to be seriously questioned whether agnosticism (in Mr.
Batchelor's sense) is really what the Buddha taught, there is another
and more profound problem with this book. It seems upon a close
reading that Mr. Batchelor is not quite so free of beliefs as he
would let on. However these are the beliefs of modernism and not
Whereas he would have us belief that he is taking the position of
"I don't know" he betrays a decided bias at every turn for materialism.
Often this is slipped in almost unawares. a very good example is
the description of the Buddha's decision to teach the Dharma after
his enlightenment. "What decided [the Buddha] was the appearance
of an idea (in the language of ancient India, a 'god' " (p 106)
Wouldn't a truly agnostic position at least entertain the possibility
of a real manifestation of a real entity rather than jump to such
an unwarranted conclusion? This conclusion can only come from an
inherent faith in the metaphysics of the modern west.
Telling as this example is, it is not central to the argument. However
on page 37 we have "All this has nothing to do with the compatibility
(or otherwise) of Buddhism and modern science. It is odd that a
practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should
be obliged to accept ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus
accept as an article of faith that consciousness cannot be explained
in terms of brain function."
Odder indeed to many traditional
Buddhists is the article of faith of modernists that it can be.
Let. s be clear about this. Consciousness has not at all been explained
"in terms of brain function" by modern science or by anyone else.
It is entirely a metaphysical assumption that it ever can be, an
act of faith of the most credulous sort that Mr. Batchelor should
be the first to denounce. There is not a shred of a proof of this
claim anywhere, only a pious belief in some quarters that such a
proof will shortly be forthcoming.
Even odder is that when there is
a conflict between two metaphysical assumptions, a Buddhist writer
should be so ready to give the benefit of the doubt to the unbuddhist
What is most unfortunate about the
materialist view as a basis for Dharma practice is that it precludes
any possibility of enlightenment. We can see in "Buddhism Without
Beliefs" that Mr. Batchelor has redefined the concept (he prefers
the term "awakening") in the direction of making it into something
mundane and ordinary. We have already commented on his assertion
that the Buddha had not transcended even the constraints of popular
thought. In his chapter on "Awakening" Mr. Batchelor goes on to
say "The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering
insight into transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries
of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted
him privileged, esoteric knowledge about how the universe works."
If we disregard the unnecessary
reference to God, the rest of this is a denial of what traditionally
and scripturally the Buddha. s enlightenment means. Consider the
Buddha. s knowledges of past lives, attained on the enlightenment
night. Consider the Buddha. s epithet as "Knower of the Worlds"
(plural.) Consider the suttas in which the Buddha reveals special
knowledge of times past and future.
Specific reference can be made to
the Mahasihanada Sutta, (Majjhima 12) in which the Buddha declares
his own powers. These include, amongst others, "the Tathagata understands
as it actually is the results of actions undertaken, past, future
and present with possibilities and with causes...the Tathagata understands
as it is the world with its many and different elements...the Tathagata
recollects his manifold past lives..."
Most damaging to the assertions
of Mr. Batchelor is, perhaps, "I see no ground on which...anyone...could
in accordance with Dhamma, accuse me thus: . While you claim full
enllightenment, you are not enlightened in regard to certain things..
Mr. Batchelor has simply redefined
the enlightenment to be something else than the Buddha claimed it
to be, and generations of Buddhists have understood it as. Of course
it is necessary to dismiss supernormal attainments if one is to
preserve the concept of materialism intact. A little later Mr. Batchelor
informs us that "access to the process of awakening was relatively
straightforward and did not entail any great fuss." (p.12) This
is certainly not the way it is described in the Dhammacakkappavattana
Sutta describing the Buddha. s first discourse. (A source which
Mr. Batchelor draws on for his chapter on the Four Truths.) When
the elder Kondanna achieved stream-entry the devas of all classes
set up a paean of rejoicing and a great light enveloped the cosmos.
Even if one wants to rationalize this away as a "metaphor" it certainly
indicates that the compilers of the canon perceived something of
very great, indeed of cosmic, importance, worthy of "fuss",
had occurred. The trivialization of enlightenment is entirely a
Part and parcel with this revaluation
of enlightenment downwards is a denial of Nirvana (Nibbana ). "Religious
interpretations invariably reduce complexity to uniformity." (How
so? Isn. t materialism the ultimate reductionism?) "Over time, increasing
emphasis has been placed on a single Absolute Truth, such as "the
Deathless. , . the Unconditioned,. . the Void,. . Nirvana,. . Buddha
Nature etc.,," (p.4)
So says Mr. Batchelor. Compare the
words of the Buddha (from Samyutta 43 - Ven. Thanissaro. s
"The unfashioned, the end, the effluent-less,
the true, the beyond, the subtle, the very-hard-to-see, the ageless,
permanence, the undecaying, the featureless, the undifferentiated,
peace, the deathless, the exquisite, bliss, solace, the exhaustion
of craving, the wonderful, the marvelous, the secure, security,
Nibbana, the unafflicted, the passionless, the pure, release, non-attachment,
the island, shelter, harbour, refuge, the ultimate."
It is very sad that many are loosing
the prospect of this promise of the Buddha in exchange for such
It has already been remarked how
Mr. Batchelor seems to consistently favour the western tradition
over the Buddhist. He tells us that "an agnostic Buddhist would
not regard the Dharma as a source of answers to questions of where
we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would
seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary
biology, neuroscience etc." (p.18) What could any of these disciplines
tell us about what happens after death? It is astonishing that a
Buddhist writer can so readily dismiss the ancient wisdom tradition
and so decisively claim the superiority of modern materialist philosophy.
It is clear too that Mr. Batchelor.
s biases have been shaped by the Protestant Reformation, in that
he seems unable, despite his own experience as a Vajrayana monk,
to appreciate the true social and spiritual import of monasticism.
(see pp.52-53) Instead, he proposes new models of organization based
on democratic and secular principles. Models which would encourage
"individuation and imagination." While it is unclear what he means
by imagination (one hopes not mental proliferation and yet more
fanciful re-interpretations) the goal of individuation is an even
more problematic one from a Buddhist perspective. Doesn. t this
necessitate an affirmation and validation of the self-concept?
It is disappointing to say the least
that in a book which purports to meet the challenge of interpreting
the Dharma for the modern west, the meeting of the two streams is
so one-sidedly against the Dharma. Where is the critique of the
western tradition? Undoubtedly much of value has been accomplished
within that tradition but it has also been intrinsically bound up
with such evils as colonialism, destruction of the natural environment
and widespread spiritual malaise.
It is precisely the ancient wisdom
of Buddhism that is missing form the western world. The sense of
a meaning in life, the intrinsic value of human and other beings,
the possibility of spiritual transcendence and the knowledge of
that which is beyond the suffering, samsaric conditioned world accessible
to science. It is tragically these very elements in the teachings
that Mr. Batchelor. s approach would discard. The teachings of the
Buddha are very old. This means to radicals and modernists that
they are out-moded. To the traditionalist it means that they are
tried and true. Millions upon millions of beings throughout history
have practiced and benefited from the full form of the Dharma, taught
complete with rebirth and transcendence and a non-physical mind.
Many have benefited to the ultimate level of liberation. What is
this arrogant pride of modern times that makes us think we are so
These teachings are very precious.
Precious in their entirety, in the letter and the meaning. They
have been cherished and handed on to us intact from our teachers
going back to the Buddha. Can we possibly justify hacking and tearing
at a living tradition to make it fit a cheap suit of modernist cloth?
There is an urgent need to interpret
and present these teachings to the modern west. This "Buddhism Without
Beliefs" has sorely failed to do. The prescription of this book
amounts to an abandonment of the traditional Dharma and the transformation
of Buddhism into a psychotherapy, which like all psychotherapies,
has no goal higher than "ordinary misery." This is a Buddhism without
fruition, without a Third Noble Truth. Should such teachings prevail
then they will still validate the tradition in a backhanded way;
because they will fulfill the prophecies of the degeneration of
the Dharma in this age of decline.
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