Reading Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism

Reading Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism August 24, 2016

After Buddhism

I can’t believe Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism sat in my bedside pile of books for a full year. Having just finished it, I’m really sorry I waited so long.

The book opens with two quotes. The first from the Buddha himself. “The dharma is clearly visible, immediate, inviting, uplifting, to be personally sensed by the wise.” Paired with it is one from the ninth century Chan master Linji. “The dharma of the buddhas has no special undertakings. Just act ordinarily, without trying to do anything in particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, lie down.”

And with this we get to ride along with Stephen Batchelor as he unfolds a powerful and compelling story of what he believes is an original Buddhism. He has asserted this several times in his past writings. And he has been taken to task for it. Here Stephen (I struggled with how to address him in this review. After trying to be more formal, either using Mr Batchelor or Batchelor to refer to him, I find a need to use the more contemporary and informal style of simply using his first name. I think he would prefer that.)  pulls out all the stops. He shows us the texts, explores them, unpacks them, contextualizes them, and he presents something really, really interesting.

Stephen describes his project. “On the basis of sparse evidence, I am seeking to reconstruct the life of the man known as Gotama and the dharma he taught. In both cases, I try imaginatively to re-inhabit the world of fifth century BCE India in order to recover glimpses of the historical Gotama before he mutated into the quasi-divine Buddha, and the core elements of his teaching before they mutated into the various orthodoxies of Buddhism.” And this he does. However, while it is sparse evidence, it is presented compellingly.

From this investigation, he presents an invitation to a much more humble spirituality, but something really, really interesting. Quite simply, I believe After Buddhism is the first major theological analysis of what is sometimes called Modern or Modernist Buddhism, sometimes Naturalistic Buddhism. Drawing upon the emergent theologies associated with the radical Protestant movement, I’ve called this phenomenon Liberal Buddhism. Stephen Batchelor prefers to call it Secular Buddhism. Time only will tell what name is finally attached to this movement that has been taking shape since about the middle of the nineteenth century, actually he argues from at least the very end of the eighteenth. While we’re still in the infancy of this, if you’ll forgive the mixing of metaphors, facet of the jewel that is the Buddha Way, what we have here, as I said, is the major theological reflection to date of this emergent school.

In the book he focuses on Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history, the culture, and the people among whom he moved, and with particularly focus on the lay, as he calls them adherents. Batchelor’s Buddha lives in a world at once alien to us and completely recognizable, inhabited by living people making decisions that have immediate consequences in their lives, and in the case of kings and spiritual sages, in the lives of many others. He succeeds in painting a compelling picture of a generally attractive figure, who in addition to being a mendicant sage can navigate the complex and frequently violent politics of his time and place – and do so for more than forty years.

With a flesh and blood Buddha, whom he tends to refer to by his family name of Gotama we have someone who is not, and actually cannot be above the fray. But rather a person who, if he hopes for his project to succeed, must deal with not only merchants and others engaged in the messiness of life, but the political and military leaders of the society. People, Stephen points out, who can be bloodthirsty and capricious, and who could end the Buddha’s enterprise at any time.

This retelling is itself a powerful portrayal, and for me as I read it utterly compelling. But there is very much more to the book. Stephen’s major contention is that Gotama lacked a metaphysical bone in his body. Possibly not unlike Stephen, himself. Stephen demonstrates relentlessly how he finds this this-worldly pragmatism by searching and analyzing the texts we have available to us.

And it really is compelling. More important Stephen’s vision of a pragmatic Gotama’s teachings are convincing as an invitation to a way of life to be lived here and now. At the core of this analysis Stephen reformulates the four truths, or, rather feels he has captured their pre-sectarian use as “four tasks,” in what he considers a more faithful version.

1) Suffering is to be comprehended
2) The arising is to be let go of
3) The ceasing is to be beheld
4) The path is to be cultivated.

Later on in the book Stephen restates these tasks as 1) embrace suffering, 2) let go of reactivity, 3) behold the ceasing of reactivity, & 4) cultivate an integrated way of life. He puts a great deal of reflection into what that integrated life looks like.

For Stephen “Gotama’s ‘all’ is an unsentimental inventory of fleeting, tragic, impersonal experience.” And he recoils at any assertion of something beyond that. And so, for Stephen, Nirvana “does not refer to the attainment of a transcendent, absolute state apart form the conditions of life but to the possibility of living here and now emancipated form the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion.” For him awakening “occurs entirely within the context of empirical experience…” And that awakening “consists of a threefold reorientation to experience rather than the attainment of a single privileged insight into an ultimate truth such as the Unconditioned.” The key “lies in emancipating oneself from the pernicious habit of grasping…” emancipated from reactivity, or, the “conditioning power of desire, hatred, and delusion.”

Throughout Stephen examines the doctrines the Buddha is presenting in the light of his pragmatic, and the other critical word skeptical Gotama. He eviscerates the two-truths model, which is actually foundational to my own Buddhism. But, I will forgo here an attempt at first fairly laying out his argument and then countering with my views – too long, and unnecessary for this review. Maybe later and in another venue.

But to give a taste of this revisiting, challenging and reinterpreting core Buddhist teachings as another example, in another significant departure from the general assertions of Buddhism, Stephen flatly states that suffering does not end. “What Buddhists trumpet as the ‘end of suffering’ cannot mean what it says.” He tells us. “Not only does it make little sense, the discourses themselves clearly state that it means the end of reactivity. To let go of reactivity and behold its ceasing is certainly no easy task, but at least it is something to which we can aspire, whereas the end of suffering will remain a pipe dream for as long as we are pulsating, breathing, ingesting, digesting, defecating bodies.”

As startling as his assertions and then compelling in his arguments, at the same time I continue to have trouble accepting Stephen’s view of an original pragmatic, ethical Buddhism lost through the accretions of religious sensibilities. My take away is that the ideas that Stephen Batchelor puts together likely all did exist at least to some degree from the earliest stages of Buddhism. But, these as the Buddha’s teaching specifically, and coherently? That’s a bridge too far for me. And I continue to question his need for the teachings to actually come from the Buddha to justify his presenting them.

All that said, what matters to me most is the religion Stephen presents. It, call it what you like, Secular Buddhism, Liberal Buddhism, Modernist Buddhism, Naturalist Buddhism; it is worth listening to, reflecting on, and even trying on. It might even at least in broad strokes be the faith for our times. I know I’m quite taken with Stephen’s reduced Buddhism, stripped of all metaphysics, and focused on the principle of conditionality, the practices of a “fourfold task,” his narrowed focus on meditation’s purposes and practice, and, finally as he presents it, self-reliance. Not, I rush to say a self-reliance that is isolation from others and the world. Actually here he seems more comfortable with the “both and” of things than elsewhere. People are individuals to be respected fully. And, we’re bound up together as intimate as can be.

He systematically presents his view of a “pre-orthodox dharma,” which is built upon “ethical, contemplative, and philosophical practice,” which he finds “optimizing human flourishing in a secular age”. It reflects a lifetime scholarly investigation of the Pali literature, Stephen’s own genuine heart, and authenticity to what he finds as the real world. A real world, as I see it, most akin to Philip K Dick’s dictum, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

One thing I’ve been completely convinced by in reading this book is that Stephen is correct asserting the Pali texts are something of a hodgepodge, including various strands of Buddhist thought, often contradictory, mashed together into what has become the canon. Not unlike what we find in the Bible, particularly in the Pentateuch, where various oral traditions are pasted together by a third party, or, probably third parties, often leaving patchy evidence of the scissors and glue. In fact it is pretty clear that Stephen is using the same tools as Christian scholars have put to use in examining their sacred texts and traditions. In some ways this is book is the culmination of an early form critical analysis of the Pali texts. This is no doubt something that we need more of.

But there’s another important point here. His “secular” Buddhism in no way lacks wonder. It’s just that, as he asserts, “A sense of the sublimity and interconnectedness of life does not require retaining or reverting to the cosmological beliefs of ancient India.” And as an example of a totally satisfactory alternative that maps the Buddhism he believes, Stephen cites Charles Darwin, who wrote in his On the Origin of Species, “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” There are several moments of ecstatic appreciation in the book. This is just one.

For me Stephen’s natural world as he experiences it speaks to a sense of wonder that is compelling, and even resonant with the best of the world’s mystics as much as it is an embrace of the modern project and the world science has revealed. But, he he relentlessly uses the word “secular” to summarize that sense, which carries within it a whole other world with a divide between it and “sacred.” It becomes “material” as the opposite of “spiritual,” inevitably including other hidden connotations, like “dead.” For me, as I read him I find someone who has tasted something wonderful, but as he presents it, wants it to fit as closely as he can honestly make it, to our contemporary scientific world-view.

And, here, I find the greatest difficulties. We stumble into the semantic wars around spirituality that are a hallmark of our times. I’ve just participated in a Facebook thread where a couple of people find they absolutely must enforce a definition of God that fits their argument, despite the actually messiness of that word which has and continues to be used in a multiplicity of ways. Here we find the language wars around spirituality and our times raging like a fire.

Stephen brings a rigor to the project that I cannot help but admire deeply. I feel, he needs to let the mystery that he, again to me obviously has experienced, a little more room to play. How, is not at all clear. But it is a problem, maybe a flaw in his presentation. At least as I read it.

That said. Bottom line: Maybe After Buddhism is a flawed masterpiece. But, it is a masterpiece.

You care about Buddhism and its variations? You care about a life of meaning in our times? You should read this book.

It really is important.


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