August 07, 2012

The Future of Religion

A Dialogue with Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt

You might have seen it mentioned in last Friday's Buddha Buzz that there's a new interview between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt over at the Secular Buddhist Association website called "The Future of Religion: A Dialogue." Tricycle printed its own dialogue between America's #1 Buddhist Atheist (that's Stephen) and Anglican priest Don Cupitt back in 2003 that you can read here. This new conversation between the two, which originally occurred in London in May, is extremely interesting but rather a lot to wade through. Here's a small excerpt—if it piques your interest, make sure to head on over to the Secular Buddhist Association website to read the conversation in its entirety. And don't forget to check out "A Secular Buddhist," Batchelor's article in our new Fall 2012 issue, and "The Atheist Pilgrim," an interview with him about Buddhist pilgrimage.


Madeleine Bunting (conversation chair): Stephen, if we don’t have a God or don’t have a concept of karma, where does our morality come from? And it seems to me that the way Buddhism is dealing with that in the West now, is that it is saying: if you want to be happy you have to become a Buddhist of some kind, in the sense “don’t inflict suffering, pursue an ethical life." But it becomes a goal dangled in front of you, this is the way to be happy. Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.
Stephen Batchelor
Stephen Batchelor: Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha—the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.


Image: Stephen Batchelor.

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Jonathan.s's picture

The one thing I can never see in Stephen Bachelor's books - or the three I have read - and these interviews, is a 'feel for the transcendent'. I can't explain what that is, of course, because it is an elusive reality - well, it is when you try and explain it! But the meaning of the word 'lokkuttara' - one of the traditional epithets of the Buddha - is 'world-transcending'. And I don't think that is something that can be rationalised in Mr Bachelor's rather Aristotelean view of life.

My background is more in comparative studies and the study of the sophia perennis. In all of its various expressions, there is at the centre of it, the realisation of the One, ineffable, sublime, beyond the sphere of reasoning. This is indeed the source of 'sukkha', in distinction from 'dukkha', and ultimately the source of whatever it is that exists. Of course Buddhism is not a theistic religion, and it doesn't reify this notion into a deity or a personal creator God. But there are ideas such as the Dharmadhatu which is a 'transcendent source of everything that exists' in the Mahayana.

There is nothing the matter with Mr. Bachelor's philosophy, understood as a secular philosophy derived from Buddhist ideas that provides a normative ethic and framework for living. But it is not the last word or the definitive interpretation of Buddhist teachings in my view.

nadajamar's picture

I find, as with all religions, and perhaps it is my own belief, that the vast design of all religions was created after the lead figure had long pssed away, and most typically written and designed solely by men. What the lead figure actually had in mind has most likely passed long away to the grave. What the buddha, Jesus, Mohammed etc actually preached, thought and developed is most likely not for us to actually know. Why is it that we profess buddha to be "only a man" "only a human" like the rest of us, but just figured out ways of dealing with the state of being human, that he professed we find the truth for ourselves, to stare it in the face, he just provide some suggested ways to do so, etc...yet so many sects "worship" buddha like a God, and build huge statues to worship at, follow all kinds of rules and ideas automatically. Buddha professed to be only human, to not worship him as a god, but to find our own way, with what ever tools we can acquire along the way. All through human history we have adapted from one thing into another...what ever works, what ever eventually leads you to your own truths. If that is using multiple religions or non-religions, what ever. Ultimate tolerance, acceptance, and truth would be better adapted to lead this world out of violence.

poetess1966's picture

I think part of it is that, in my experience, many Western converts come from Christianity. They leave that faith, but are still looking for a "Savior", someone to save them from themselves. And so they simply replace Jesus with Buddha. They never get to the point of viewing Buddha as a Realized Teacher, someone like themselves. They don't understand that by deifying Buddha, they are doing the exact opposite of what he intended.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Part of that problem is Buddhisms that believe a buddha to be an untouchable, unknowable deity or ubermensch.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni Buddha predicted three phases his teachings would pass through after his death. You describe the second phase, during which people "worship buddha like a God, and build huge statues to worship at, follow all kinds of rules and ideas automatically."
We are presently in the third phase, when people neither practice the Buddha's teaching nor gain its great benefit. The Sutra of the Great Assembly describes this phase as a time in which "quarrels and disputes will arise among the adherents to my (Shakyamuni's) teachings, and the Pure Law will become obscured and lost."

wanwaimeng's picture

I may be simplistic in my thinking, but Buddhism brings us closer to the truth. And when we live closer to the truth we will be happy won't we. Peace is happiness. I am not coming from a Western background I am from Asia but I have had my education in the West.

Dominic Gomez's picture

When Buddhist understanding gets confused with Christian dogma such questions about happiness arise. If a person cannot be happy without first feeling guilty or undeserving, this skews the Buddhist quest for a simple, honest happiness in THIS life.

gwallis's picture

Thanks to Stephen Batchelor for invoking the unhealthy link between contemporary western Buddhism and the happiness industry. The result of this link is a Buddhism that is as infantile as it is shallow and facile. That link, however, seems less like a one-sided "hijack" than it does a two-sided collusion. With each new book or Tricycle article by some bona fide Buddhist teacher the bind is strengthened. The Secular Buddhist Association, where Batchelor is on the advisory council, contributes daily to this Dale-Carnegization of Buddhism.

I like what Stephen says about Buddhism's providing a narrative for living life. Though, of course, Buddhism is merely providing Stephen and the secularists with the raw materials for fashioning their OWN, quite selective, narrative (or, really, multiple, often contradictory narratives, in the plural).

Stephen says that he practices Buddhism because it gives him "a framework within which to make sense of [his] life." I appreciate the need for a framework for living. What I have trouble understanding is the decision to adopt, and then necessarily drastically adapt (often beyond recognition), an ancient Indian tradition that is rooted deeply in asceticism, authoritarianism, and countless values that are antithetical to modern secular society. Why this choice for a framework? Doesn't culture provide many others that are better suited to our age and situation? So, why Buddhism?

That "why" can be answered. However, the answer, I suspect, has more to do with the faith of a believer than with the courageous reasoning of a thinker.