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Batchelor v. Thurman
The following debate took place in New York City in January 1997 at the home of Michael Marsh. Stephen Batchelor lives in England and is the Director of Studies at the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Inquiry. He is the translator of Shantideva's A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, as well as the author of several books, including the recently published Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead). He is currently leading a Tricycle Retreat.
Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, and a cofounder of Tibet House, New York; his translations include The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and works by Vimalikirti and Tsongkapa. Both Batchelor and Thurman are longtime Buddhist practitioners and former monks in the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In the dialogue, "Tricycle" represents questions and comments put forth by those present at the debate—staff members Helen Tworkov, Mary Talbot, and Lorraine Kisly, as well as Michael Marsh, Pico Iyer, and Mark Epstein. The photographs were taken by Sally Boon.
Thurman: What does "moral" mean? A man murdered somebody in that case; he had a birthmark from the hangman's noose, and he was completely driven and gripped with guilt for it.
Batchelor: But then, according to Buddhist theory, it's unlikely that he would have been born as a human being.
Thurman: Not necessarily. In this case, he somehow hung on to his good karma of being a human—you can rationalize anything in Buddhist theory! All this stuff we've heard about evidence and science is all a bunch of rationalizations anyway. Nobody ever took hold of an atom, or a quark, or a neuron or a neutron or solar big bangs.
Batchelor: Well, I'm not so sure that science is just rationalization. It's being able to produce hypotheses that are testable under repeated circumstances anywhere in the world.
Thurman: Stephen, if everything after death is inconceivable to our human senses, then you are presumably discounting the Buddhist claim that a Buddha has senses that are adequate to comprehending the nature of reality utterly, beyond the human capacity. And also discounting the claim that Buddha has omniscience. Since Buddhists trust that, they also consider the Buddha's report about the nature of former and future lives to be highly reliable.
Batchelor: I'm not discrediting those claims. I'm questioning them.
Thurman: As you know, the only definitive teaching in the canon is Buddha's teaching of shunyata, voidness. But the texts say that the Buddha is a credible witness of former and future lives because he has already proven to you the state of shunyata, which you can actually experience, and which can actually be proven. Because the only thing rigorously provable is voidness, the teaching of former and future lives is open to interpretation. That doesn't mean it's untrue, only that it's not as absolute as the teaching of shunyata. So, are you disappointed in shunyata? I don't think so.
Batchelor: I have no trouble with that at all.
Thurman: Since that was proved to you, and since Buddha was the only one who taught that in history, then he has a more credible claim to understanding the nature of reality more accurately than anybody else.
Batchelor: Again I find that a difficult inference to draw. Just because a person is able to demonstrate one thing with absolute clarity—
Thurman: But that's the fundamental thing. The nature of reality isn't just one thing, it's the main thing.
Batchelor: I agree. And for that very reason, the other issues are not so important to me.
Thurman: Well, that's true. They aren't. That's why I conceded when we started this debate that you can be a Buddhist without believing in this.
Tricycle: But you said that you couldn't attain realization with believing in it.
Thurman: Yes. Evolutionary progress.
Tricycle: So you're still locating a belief in rebirth as a central tenet on which the Buddhist view rests?
Thurman: That's how it's traditionally defined in Buddhism: belief in the existence of enlightenment and belief in the cause and effect of karma.
Batchelor: Not rebirth.
Thurman: C'mon now! They mean rebirth. That means that causality is coherent and cohesive and you're hooked into it; you can't be disconnected.
Tricycle: So, Bob, you can't have cause and effect and karma without rebirth?
Thurman: No, because you're not in it.
Tricycle: And Stephen, what would you say?
Batchelor: I think you can. For me one of the most striking passages in Shantideva is the verse in which Shantideva says that the person who dies, and the person who is reborn, are other. And, therefore, the only valid motive that one can have for acting has to be compassion. There is no "you" who continues into a future life. "You" finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. That position takes the subject—me, the ego—out of the equation. The process of evolutionary change is not about me, Stephen Batchelor, but about what I can now do to improve the spiritual evolutionary advantage of those who come after my death. If you take the idea of otherness in this way, you no longer need to posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.
Thurman: You don't consider that verse to be a denial of that, do you ?
Batchelor: It's not a denial, but Shantideva is seriously questioning what it is that continues.
Tricycle: Stephen, how do you explain so many of the Buddhist masters, starting with Shakyamuni, talking about their past lives?
Batchelor: My own sense is that the Buddha took on board the cosmology and the cycle of rebirth that was already in place—at least in principal—in India at this time. That was the cultural paradigm that he inhabited.
Tricycle: So rather than attribute to him supernormal human capacities, you, Stephen, are attributing to him limited cultural parameters.
Batchelor: I have difficulty with the idea of seeing the Buddha as a kind of superman.
Thurman: I'm sure Buddha was superman! Beyond superman! [Laughter] Stephen is correct that the Buddha accepted his cultural paradigm. Yet many of Stevenson's cases are drawn from cultures other than India where they don't have formal rebirth theories. The vast majority of people in this country, when they're polled, believe in heaven and hell. What we have in our culture is an elite group controlling materialist science. Their views make it impossible for people to make progress, because it inculcates a nihilistic attitude about life. "Existential" is a nicer term, but it's really nihilistic. It gives you a weird kind of freedom. And it gives you a tremendous helplessness. There's is nothing you can really do because you don't think that this piece of meditation, this piece of training, this piece of reasoning, will really accomplish any transformation. The idea that you will become nothing at death, which subliminally makes you feel like nothing even now, is the major obstacle to people's emotional life, and their sense of connectedness with nature, with other people, and the environment. And that's where the cause and effect of karma and former and future lives, can push at those self-imposed boundaries.
Tricycle: So the "story" of rebirth can be a positive motivating force.
Thurman: And that's good. The key boundary that we have to cross is the white, Protestant mentality in order to rediscover the sense of reconnectedness to life and the planet. But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the Buddha was just telling stories in some sense of making it up. Of course, from the Buddhist radical scientific point of view, the story of us sitting in this room on the eighteenth floor of a building in New York City is a story.
Batchelor: You seem to hold the view that if one believes that there is nothing after death one cannot believe in causal or moral or transformative processes.
Thurman: Well, no, I didn't say that.
Batchelor: It was implied, no?
Thurman: That would be the extreme case. That would be like Raskolnikov, the absolute nihilist.
Batchelor: Or Jean Paul Sartre. But a lot of what you just argued was premised on a link between a materialist/nihilist view thereby undermining people's sense that there is anything they can really do. I don't think that follows.
Thurman: I didn't mean that it followed on a conscious level. What I've noticed is that the seed of a little picture that someone holds, even subliminally, in their minds, planted by their materialistic education, that at death, Boom! Finished! That little seed, subliminally, erodes the sense of connectedness. It corresponds to an ingrained sense of disconnectedness and an atomistic individualism that has been cooked up over the last three centuries in the West. It doesn't mean that people can't simultaneously hold theories of causality. But I have come perceive that seed to be intimately connected with this almost psychotic dimension in the Western personality.
Batchelor: I certainly agree with you that it is essential for people to have a world-view that establishes their deeper sense of connectedness with the environment, the world, with other people and society. And I agree that many of the disasters that the world is currently experiencing is because of either that nihilistic or that absolutistic view. And I agree that for many people it is very liberating to have a view of individual continuity without lapsing into either absolutistic or nihilistic extremes. But I don't feel that view is necessarily true. I feel that one can account for transformation, responsibility and causality quite adequately without having to ascribe to a metaphysics of personal continuity.
Thurman: Let me ask you then: we cannot perceive or conceive of anything that lacks continuity in nature. Why should we then take the subtlest level of consciousness and say particularly that that has no continuity?
Batchelor: I don't dispute continuity at all. Of course there's continuity. The question is how does continuity continue? A tree continues, but that tree in Central Park will disappear, and some seed, acorn, will carry on the genetic information.
Thurman: So you agree with the continuity of consciousness then. It's just that you think that it may not be subjectively apprehendable by anybody.
Batchelor: I don't necessarily agree with the continuity of consciousness. I believe in the continuity of actions.
Thurman: The consequences of actions; to the recipients of the actions, not to the actor.
Batchelor: Not necessarily to the actor, no.
Thurman: So something gets excluded. That's what I'm trying to say: why should one thing be excluded from this vast sea of continuity?
Batchelor: Because consciousness is contingent upon this physical organism. What we are saying when we posit no future life for the individual is that that particular piece of process of continuity of me remembering myself as I go along—with the gaps that come from sleep, from meditative states, from momentary amnesiacs, and other things—that particular continuity is one that stops.
Thurman: In classical Mahayana and Tantric accounts when someone attains Buddhahood they go through a kind of mega-death which results in a kind of mega-life where they can be alive in fifty different beings or a million different beings. That's very different from a person who as a compulsive self-centered, self-enclosed individual grasps for another self-enclosed individual's existence in whatever form of embodiment, which is the way they would describe an unenlightened person's involuntary samsaric rebirth—driven by lust and hate and so forth. So there are different kinds of rebirth within that picture. But no one can absolutely prove rebirth; even the Buddhists say that; only a Buddha's mind can know it for sure. But still, the fact of accepting it has profound and important consequences.
Tricycle: From a pragmatic view?
Thurman: All Buddhism is pragmatic.
Tricycle: It's useful to help people?
Thurman: That's in keeping with the tradition.