A Secular Buddhist

Secular Buddhism is something to do, not something to believe in.Stephen Batchelor

Secular BuddhistI am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. My practice as a secular Buddhist is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in our saeculum—this world, this age in which we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be not the attainment of a final nirvana but rather the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the Eightfold Path here on earth. Given what is known about the biological evolution of human beings, the emergence of self-awareness and language, the sublime complexity of the brain, and the embeddedness of such creatures in the fragile biosphere that envelops this planet, I cannot understand how after physical death there can be continuity of any personal consciousness or self, propelled by the unrelenting force of acts (karma) committed in this or previous lives. For many—perhaps most—of my coreligionists, this admission might lead them to ask: “Why, then, if you don’t believe such things, do you still call yourself a ‘Buddhist’?”

I was neither born a Buddhist nor raised in a Buddhist culture. I grew up in a broadly humanist environment, did not attend church, and was exempted from scripture classes, as they were then called, at grammar school in Watford. At the age of 18 I left England and traveled to India, where I settled in the Tibetan community around the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. I became a Buddhist monk at the age of 21 and for ten years underwent a formal monastic education in Buddhist doctrine, philosophy, and meditation. Even in the wake of the 1960s this was considered a highly unconventional career path. Buddhism, when it was mentioned at all in those days, was dismissed by mainstream Western media as a marginal though benign spiritual preoccupation of ex- (or not so ex-) hippies and the occasional avant-garde psychiatrist. I would have dismissed as a fantasist anyone who told me that in 40 years meditation would be available in the U.K on the National Health Service, and a U.S. congressman (Tim Ryan) would publish a book called A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.

Buddhism had its origins in 5th-century B.C.E. India and eventually spread throughout the whole of Asia, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Westerners had any inkling at all of what it taught and stood for. The abrupt discovery that Gotama Buddha was a historical figure every bit as real as Jesus Christ, and whose influence had spread just as far and wide, came as a shock to the imperial conceits of Victorian England. While a tiny handful of Europeans converted to Buddhism from the late 19th century onward, it was only in the late 1960s that the dharma started to go viral in the West. In contrast to Christianity, which slowly and painfully struggled to come to terms with the consequences of the Renaissance, the European enlightenment, natural science, democracy, and secularization, Buddhism was catapulted into modernity from deeply conservative, agrarian societies in Asia, which were either geographically remote or cut off from the rest of the world through political isolation. After a lifetime of work in Buddhist studies, the scholar and translator Edward Conze drew the conclusion that “Buddhism hasn’t had an original idea in a thousand years.” When Buddhist communities collided with modernity in the course of the 20th century, they were unprepared for the new kinds of questions and challenges their religion would face in a rapidly changing global and secular world.

I suspect that a considerable part of the Western enthusiasm for things Buddhist may still be a Romantic projection of our yearnings for truth and holiness onto those distant places and peoples about which we know the least. I am sometimes alarmed at the uncritical willingness of Westerners to accept at face value whatever is uttered by a Tibetan lama or Burmese sayadaw, while they would be generally skeptical were something comparable said by a Christian bishop or Cambridge don. I do believe that Buddhist philosophy, ethics, and meditation have something to offer in helping us come to terms with many of the personal and social dilemmas of our world. But there are real challenges in translating Buddhist practices, values, and ideas into comprehensive forms of life that are more than just a set of skills acquired in courses on mindfulness-based stress-reduction and that can flourish just as well outside meditation retreat centers as within them. Buddhism might require some radical surgery if it is to get to grips with modernity and find a voice that can speak to the conditions of this saeculum.

Secular BuddhistSo what sort of Buddhism does a self-declared secular Buddhist like myself advocate? For me, secular Buddhism is not just another modernist reconfiguration of a traditional form of Asian Buddhism. It is neither a reformed Theravada Buddhism (like the Vipassana movement), a reformed Tibetan tradition (like Shambhala Buddhism), a reformed Nichiren school (like the Soka Gakkai), a reformed Zen lineage (like the Order of Interbeing) nor a reformed hybrid of some or all of the above (like the Triratna Order, formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). It is more radical than any of these: it seeks to return to the roots of the Buddhist tradition and rethink Buddhism from the ground up.

In exploring such roots, secular Buddhists find themselves excavating two fields that have been opened up in the past century by modern translators and scholars. The first of these fields consists of the earliest discourses attributed to Siddhattha Gotama, which are primarily found in the Pali canon of the Theravada school. We are exceptionally fortunate as English speakers to have not only a complete translation of the Pali canon but one that is continually being improved—something that speakers of other European languages can still only dream of. The second of these fields is that of our increasingly detailed (though still disputed and incomplete) understanding of the historical, social, political, religious, and philosophical conditions that prevailed during the Buddha’s lifetime in 5th-century B.C.E. India. Thanks to scholars like Richard Gombrich [interviewed in this issue], we are beginning to see more clearly the kind of world in which the Buddha taught. Together, these two fields provide a fertile soil for the project of rethinking—perhaps reimagining—the dharma from the ground up.

Yet this very wealth of material also raises serious difficulties in interpretation. The Pali canon is a complex tapestry of linguistic and rhetorical styles, shot through with conflicting ideas, doctrines, and images, all assembled and elaborated over about four centuries. The canon does not speak with a single voice. How then to distinguish between what is likely to have been the word of the Buddha as opposed to a well-intended “clarification” added by a later commentator? We are not yet—and may never be—at a point where such questions can be answered with certainty. Be that as it may, as a Buddhist practitioner I look to the Buddha’s discourses not just for scholarly knowledge but in order to help me come to terms with what the Chinese call the “great matter of birth and death.” It is in this sense that my secular Buddhism still has a religious quality to it, because it is the conscious expression of my “ultimate concern”—as the theologian Paul Tillich once defined “faith.” As one who feels an urgency about such concerns, I am bound, therefore, to risk choices of interpretation now that may or may not turn out to be viable later.

Secular Buddhist

Secular Buddhist

 My starting point is to bracket anything attributed to the Buddha in the canon that could just as well have been said by a brahmin priest or Jain monk of the same period. So when the Buddha says that a certain action will produce a good or bad result in a future heaven or hell, or when he speaks of bringing to an end the repetitive cycle of rebirth and death in order to attain nirvana, I take such utterances to be determined by the common metaphysical outlook of that time rather than reflecting an intrinsic component of the dharma. I thus give central importance to those teachings in the Buddha’s dharma that cannot be derived from the Indian worldview of the 5th century B.C.E.

I would suggest tentatively that this “bracketing” of metaphysical views leaves us with four distinctive key ideas that do not appear to have direct precedents in Indian tradition. I call them the four P’s:

1. The principle of conditionality
2. The process of four noble tasks (truths)
3. The practice of mindful awareness
4. The power of self-reliance

Some time ago I realized that what I found most difficult to accept in Buddhism were those beliefs that it shared with its sister Indian religions Hinduism and Jainism. Yet when you bracket those beliefs, you are left not with a fragmentary and emasculated teaching but with an entirely adequate ethical, philosophical, and practical framework for living your life in this world. Thus what is truly original in the Buddha’s teaching, I discovered, was his secular outlook.

And when you bracket the quasi-divine attributes that the figure of the Buddha is believed to possess—a fleshy head-protuberance, golden skin, and so forth—and focus on the episodes in the canon that recount his often fraught dealings with his contemporaries, then the humanity of Siddhattha Gotama begins to emerge with more clarity. All this supports what the British scholar Trevor Ling surmised nearly 50 years ago: that what we now know as “Buddhism” started life as an embryonic civilization or culture that then mutated into another organized Indian religion. Secular Buddhism, which seeks to articulate a way of practicing the dharma in this world and time, thus finds vindication through its critical return to canonical sources, and its attempts to recover a vision of Gotamas’s own saeculum.

Above all, secular Buddhism is something to do, not something to believe in. This pragmatism is evident in many of the classical parables: the poisoned arrow, the city, the raft—as well as in the Buddha’s presentation of his four “noble truths” as a range of tasks to be performed rather than a set of propositions to be affirmed. Instead of trying to justify the belief that “life is suffering” (the first noble truth), one seeks to embrace and deal wisely with suffering when it occurs. Instead of trying to convince oneself that “craving is the origin of suffering” (the second noble truth), one seeks to let go of and not get tangled up in craving whenever it rises up in one’s body or mind. From this perspective it is irrelevant whether the statements “life is suffering” or “craving is the origin of suffering” are true or false. Why? Because these four so-called “truths” are not propositions that one accepts as a believer or rejects as a nonbeliever. They are suggestions to do something that might make a difference in the world in which you coexist with others now.

Awakening, therefore, is not a mystical insight into the true nature of mind or reality (which always, weirdly enough, accords with the established views of one’s brand of Buddhism) but rather the opening up of a way of being in this world that is no longer determined by one’s greed, hatred, fear, and selfishness. Thus awakening is not a state but a process: an ethical way of life and commitment that enables human flourishing. As such, it is no longer the exclusive preserve of enlightened teachers or accomplished yogis. Likewise, nirvana—the stopping of craving—is not the goal of the path but its very source. For human flourishing first stirs in that clear, bright, empty space where neurotic self-centredness realizes that it has no ground at all to stand on. One is then freed to pour forth like sunlight.

Such a view of the dharma fits well with the English theologian Don Cupitt’s vision of a “solar ethics.” In Room 33 of the British Museum you will find a small clay Gandharan bas-relief from the 2nd century C.E. that represents the Buddha as a stylized image of the sun placed on a seat beneath the Bodhi tree. In the Pali canon, Gotama describes himself as belonging to the “solar lineage” (adiccagotta), while others call him by the epithet “solar friend” (adiccamitta). A true friend (kalyanamitta), he remarks, is one who casts light on the path ahead just as the rising sun illuminates the earth. Yet as Buddhism grew into an organized Indian religion, it seemed to lose sight of its solar origins and turned lunar. Nirvana is often compared to the moon: cool, impassive, remote, and also—as they didn’t know then but we know now—a pale reflection of an extraordinary source of heat and light. Perhaps we have reached a time when we need to recover and practice again a solar dharma, one concerned with shedding its light (wisdom) and heat (compassion) onto and into this world, which, as far as we know, might be the only one that ever has been or ever will be.

Stephen Batchelor is a former monk in the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions. He is the author of Buddhism without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

Photographs courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

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robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

Recently I suffered from a stress disorder that required treatment, by avoiding all toxins like nicotine and caffeine I was able to recover.

lynn247's picture

Since quantum physics tells us that the entire infinite universe flashes in and out of existence thousands of times per second, we must first ask ourselves what enables our "personal" consciousness to be continually "reborn" right now, before we can reject the notion of rebirth outright.

ravens's picture

In terms of rejecting belief in rebirth, for instance, what if we precede the question "What scientific support is there for any continuity of consciousness beyond death?" with the question "What scientific account can we find for the existence of consciousness at all?"

sanghadass's picture

now you're cookin!

drlipton's picture

Thank you, Stephen for this essay and for your books. You remind me of the great Jewish scholar, Mordecai Kaplan, raised as an Orthodox Jew, who had the chutzpah to revise Judaism from the top down. He took out every single element of the supernatural from the Torah and prayer books, but kept the ritual and community, forming what became Reconstructionist Judaism.
I, too, am a Buddhist atheist, and a student of evolutionary biology in addition. I have one question: Sangha. Thich Nhat Hanh (Order of Interbeing) has suggested that the next Buddha will be the Sangha, the community of practice. I have enjoyed participating in the Plum Village tradition, although many of the traditions feel foreign to me. In your work, and in your life, is there a Sangha of Secularist Buddhists such as yourself? Is there a cohort of people who practice as you do, informed by the Buddha but also observant of Darwin, Einstein, and modern developments in physics and biology? If so, could you share a link or suggestion? I have found being a secular Buddhist to be lonely, compared to those who join larger traditions, I and do think that the Sangha has value in itself, as it helps us deal with the Four Noble Truths and can help remind us of the Noble 8 Fold Way.
Thank you.

Wanderer33's picture

"I thus give central importance to those teachings in the Buddha’s dharma that cannot be derived from the Indian worldview of the 5th century B.C.E."

That is brilliant! Not just returning to the core, but distilling what is separate from the culture of the time. I would like to read more!

myers_lloyd's picture

This statement really is radical…like the Buddha. Practising for a long time with my Zen teacher, I've never felt hampered by any belief system at all. To any theories like karma which seem to me hereditary cultural givens, he'd simply say: The jury is out on that. The Don't Know mind! I don't think my teacher would necessarily call himself a secular Buddhist, but no matter. Buddha didn't call himself a Buddhist. Not necessarily, and not at all.

sanghadass's picture

Einstein was a physicist not an awakened being. He had no illusions about the nature of his understanding. Like the Buddha, Einstein did not pretend to understand the nature of things - as a whole. This is one reason we admire both of them! They were both brilliant - in their respective fields of inquiry - and they were both realistic in there assessment of their own understanding and its limits.

When you have eliminated the seemingly impossible, whatever remains, is the 'best case scenario' i.e. findings with high levels of significance. Physicists come up with theories, develop hypotheses and, make observations. Some of their theories are impossible to test given our current ability. The hypotheses that they can test - they do - to find support for their theories. This process requires an interest, the funding, technology etc. They test their hypotheses through empirical methods of inquiry. If their findings are statistically significant and repeatable, they become the best case scenario - as an explanation for the observed phenomena. There are also varieties of phenomena that have not been observed 'empirically' that physicists rely on - in order to carry out their research i.e the actual content of their thinking process.

Physicists do not discover 'truth'. They formulate theories about the observable universe and, make scientific observations - from the micro to the macro level. They look for evidence that supports or undermines their theories. Their domain of inquiry deals with the nature of 'actuality'. They try - as best they can - to identify the processes that underpin physical phenomena. Social scientists focus on socio/cultural phenomena, economics, psychological variables etc. This domain of inquiry can tell us things about our perceived 'reality'. That varies a great deal as a result of our upbringing, peer group, education, drives, motivations, foibles, infatuations etc.

'Truth' is not synonymous with actuality or, reality. However, some people attempt to collapse the three into one. The truth liberates! Actuality and reality do not liberate! They provide us with a model of reality - and a 'world view' - that we use to orient ourselves within the vast field of existence, and survive. The Buddha's compassionate offering to all of us, is a description of the liberating truth he discovered. The Buddha taught a form of inquiry that we may benefit from. In order, to understand the nature of suffering - and its ending. Something we can discover for ourselves.

Important as clear thinking is in the teachings. It is also important to have a sensitive and compassionate response to suffering. However, the Buddha was pointing to more than this! We need to live 'fully' in the light of the truth that we have discovered - without reservations - in order to wake up.

Just as we should recognise that which is true, sensitive and, good with regard to our inner life and, the world around us. We also need to recognise that which 'we do not know' and live in the light of that 'understanding' as well! To know what we know is sufficient. To believe that we know things that we simply 'believe' makes little sense! Having beliefs about the non-existence of the so-called supernatural is as useful as having a belief in it. There is no place for this useless activity in open inquiry. This is what having an open mind is all about.

The Buddha - in the early strata of the teachings - makes it very clear! There is a level of engagement with the teachings that is theoretical - and practical. However, there is another level of insight that cannot be reduced to the former or, the latter. To ignore this teaching of the Buddha would be disingenuous. The teachings on the four stages of awakening are an important theme in the Buddha's teachings. Has Stephen bracketed these teachings - as a matter of convenience? With the 'justification' that it is inessential. A cultural artefact of iron age philosophy. As if anyone can tell us the actual impact of the prevailing culture on early Buddhism - with any degree of certainty.

It may be the case, that Stephen's commitment to secularism is simply a reflection of his own level of understanding and insight? Therefore, the Buddha's teachings need to be forced through the 'reducing valve' of secular ideology. In order to eliminate 'inconvenient' aspects of the Buddha's teachings. Aspects of the teachings that do not fit into the secular mind-set.

We need to ask questions about who is 'qualified' to re-calibrate the early strata of the teachings and, also question their motivation in this exercise?? Shall we leave it to those who reflect our pre-set conclusions to re-interpret and interpolate the Buddha's teachings. To reify the ideas that we find most edifying because they conform to our existing model of reality and, world view? This is where the myth of secular 'objectivity' breaks down.

Secular Buddhism may serve a useful purpose as a 'staging post' on the way to further inquiry. An open inquiry that is a necessary prerequisite for the discovery of the liberating Dharma that is entirely 'new' and transformative. An openness that no ideology - religious or secular - can help us to realise.

In waking up to impermanence we see the Dharma! In seeing the Dharma we see the Buddha! I feel the terms 'awaken' and 'discover' can be used to convey similar meanings. They both convey a sense of an awareness of that which is 'always the case'. The only certainty is change!

Change is the 'constant' that the Buddha pointed to! So, we can can take this fundamental Buddhist insight and actually unpack it. Instead of taking it as an article of faith that we simply believe in. The insights and, the modes of practice that the Buddha shared with us, were directed towards the unpacking of how 'we take things to be'. In order, to arrive at an awakening/discovery that liberates.

I am using language to point to insights that transcend language. This is the best we - or, a Buddha can do - through language! This is what I am trying to convey in what I have said (above). What is referred to as our 'personal' reality is a filter through which we perceive things. Our [personal reality] is an emergent process.

We acquire a personal identity as a result of what we receive through our interaction with others - and the world around us. This includes the Buddhist communities that we interact with (including Secular Buddhism). From this interaction we derive our various perspectives on Buddhism - with its kaleidoscope of teachings and practices.

Our personal reality is not something that is fixed or indelible. It can change over time for various reasons e.g. changing relationships and pathology. There is one deceased teacher - who is dear to me - who spoke of a "basket of persona's". Different identities that arise according to time, place and, circumstance.

We have different persona's that manifest in relation to different people and situations. We exhibit different persona's and modes of interaction when we are with our grandmother or our lover! At least - I hope so? Our personal realities are fluid and changeable. They may appear fixed, if we cling to - and identify with - ourselves, as persons'.

Sometimes - in fact quite often - ordinary people [like me], have a tendency to believe that our personal realities are the only realities - of much significance. When this 'condition' is not the exception - but an established norm - we can be surprised, even alarmed - when others' see things differently. We may then surmise that what others see and experience is not the 'truth' and what we see - and experience - is!

I am trying to convey the obvious! Our personal realities are not the truth of the way things are. They are just a personal take on reality that is informed by our own background and dispositions. If you don't feel this has any relevance to Dharma inquiry then that may be a result of your personal reality. Your own encounter with Buddhist teachings that may differ from my own. The truth which liberates is beyond individual differences!

These are the definitions that I am using to convey the aspects of the teaching, I am drawing attention to:

"Truth - the quality or state of being true."

"Actuality - the state of existing in reality."

"Reality - is the [conjectured] state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined."

To identify oneself as a Secular Buddhist or, otherwise, is to reify a fixed identity. It means that you belong to a particular club - the modernist clique! It is to cling to a sense of self. This is not the liberating Dharma. It is to ignore the key insight of 'not-self' that the Buddha shared with us. This insight of the Buddha is what makes his teachings so profound in contrast to our secular identities that are anything but profound.

Nobody gets enlightened! That is the awakening! To say that awakening is a redundant artefact of ancient Indian thought is to completely miss the point of the Buddha's teachings. Therefore, if you have assumed the identity of a 'Secular Buddhist' who [believes] that awakening is an irrelevance - you need to take your inquiry into the Buddha's teachings a bit further?

jackelope65's picture

You have explained my insights much better than I could possibly have done. I hold my beliefs very loosely and remain open to change. Science seems to provide us with more questions than answers though a worthy pursuit; I do not know the the truth, reality, and can not answer any questions with certainty but do proceed forward with my best interpretations.

clivefletcher2000's picture

If we remember that the Buddha advised us not to unconditionally accept his words but to find out for ourselves, then is this discussion not redundant? With metta and gassho.

D. Anderson's picture

I noticed that Stephen did not respond to any of the negative intellectual blaw, blaw, blaw and I am very glad he did not waste his time doing so. It is my belief that Stephen's books and lectures are a beacon for the understanding and adoption of Buddhism in the West.

jbyrd5884's picture


In his article “A Secular Buddhist,” Mr. Stephen Bachelor concluded that “what is true in the Buddha’s teaching . . . was his secular outlook.” He based his conclusion upon the highly dubious proposition that original Buddhism did not share any common beliefs “with its sister Indian religions Hinduism [Brahmanism] and Jainism.” How did Mr. Bachelor arrive at this proposition since there appears to be no Buddhist scholars that agree with him? It may have been an a priori judgment on Mr. Bachelor’s part that substituted for lack of historical evidence. At any rate, Buddhist scholars overwhelmingly support the opposite view. For example, Rhys-Davids, T. W. in his books, Early Buddhism (1903) and Buddhist India (1902); R.C. Dutta, Civilisation in the Buddhist Age (1908); R.C. Pandey, Buddhist Studies in India; Kern, H., MANUAL OF INDIIAN BUDDHISM (1891); Edward, Conze, Buddhism: its essence and development (1951); and more recently, Noble Ross Peat, Buddhism, A History, (1994): and Richard H Robinson and Willard L. Johnson, The Buddhist Religion, (1997). Indeed, the path undertaken by Siddhartha Gautama in beginning his search was indeed in the traditional Indian motif. Among others, he left home, sort out teachers, and spent six years during the most austere mediations.
Similarly to Mr. Bachelor, another scholar, Dr. Caroline A.F. Rhys-Davids, offered some fundamental criticism of present day Buddhism based upon her interpretation of the movement that latter warped into what we know as Buddhism: See SAKYA or Buddhist Origins (1928) and A MANUAL OF BUDDHISM, (1932). Her concern was the dichotomy between the Pali Canons—which were written down centuries after the original message of Gautama and which were mainly addressed to monks—and the movement initiated by Gautama that contained a wider spiritual impulse that included the spiritual evolution of humans now and in other worlds. She did not question the spirituality of early Buddhism but stressed it as essential and basic.
To be told that there is no truth to the four Noble Truths; that nirvana is no longer a viable goal “but rather the opening of a way of being in this world that is no longer determined by one’s greed, hatred, fear, and selfishness;” and that there can be no continuity of any personal consciousness when the body dies, would be relative worthless, or, thank to William Shakespeare, “much ado about nothing,” or not Buddhism at all. Paraphrasing Edmond Holmes, the author of The Creed of Buddha, (1908), to offer secular Buddhism as having meaning is the hollowness of mockeries in the face of assured extinction and annihilation of the human race.

peter.moore's picture

'Sought', not 'sort'

jbyrd5884's picture

Thanks very much for your correction of "sought" for "sort." Unfortunately, my high paid editor over looked it. My disappointment with your response is that you did not address the historical and spiritual concerns raised in my remarks, unless, or course, you meant to imply that what I wrote could be summarily dismissed because of your dubious grammatical correction.

jdkees's picture

I deeply appreciate the Secular Buddhist approach. Buddhist morality, taken in even the most general sense, is quite beautiful . . . notions of compassion, non-violence, loving/kindness. Secular Buddhism is critical for those of us grounded to the natural world. For those of us who can not accept the supernatural. That said, a deep respect must be cultivated for all beliefs and traditions. After all, we are all brothers and sisters and find ourselves inexorably interdependent.

bill.cook68's picture


spoppino's picture

To paraphrase a line from Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, I am a post-Christian American with an existentialist outlook on life. I, too, admire Stephen Batchelor for his honest spiritual searching. His presentation of the Four Noble Truths as actions to live instead of concepts to believe is the clearest I have read. It is bleakly amusing to observe that many Dharma loving Buddhists react no differently from many Bible loving Christians when they feel that their institutionalized faiths are threatened by the Western secular worldview. As a newcomer to Buddhist practice, I harbor no illusions that any one ceremonial tradition or priestly lineage holds the key to all truth. I've seen too much of the same bickering over sacred texts, doctrines, and worship styles among Christians. We all have a lot of growing up to do as a species.

celticpassage's picture

"I harbor no illusions that any one ceremonial tradition or priestly lineage holds the key to all truth."
Neither does atheism or the secular.

sanghadass's picture

yes - this is all to obvious and somehow overlooked.

Kunga.Chodzin's picture

What a great article! More so, what a great discussion! For me, Batchelor's article is a way to challenged my neurosis and grasping after the fantastical elements of Buddhism (even if there is no way to prove or disprove the reality of such accounts... does it even matter?). The point is, I think, that Buddhist practice is valuable to all people, not just Buddhists, as a way to relate to our world in a genuine and brave way.

annieh's picture

This is an intense thread. I love Batchelor's bravery. My understanding of Buddhism is that one is asked to examine for oneself what makes sense, to use one's critical thinking. My sense of the basic teaching is that one must follow a path of compassionate action. What does this have to do with dogma?

Dharma Bum's picture

I love SB's books and his lectures here http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/169/
I too find some of the traditional Buddhist notions just as untenable as some of the core Christian ones, yet I have found great value in studying and following many of the Buddha's teachings without adopting archaic superstitions. Many thanks to SB for all his work.

michaelallen23's picture

"The abrupt discovery that Gotama Buddha was a historical figure every bit as real as Jesus Christ."

There is not any historical proof that Jesus Christ was a real person.

dsr12's picture

...except for the Gospels and hundreds of eyewitness accounts.

teknozen's picture

It is interesting yet disconcerting to see how unkind even Buddhists can be when they feel their beliefs are being threatened. I appreciate Stephen's perspectve, and respect his many years of study and practice. Most importantly, his view helps makes it possible for people who can't swallow rebirth & karma (beyond the pure meaning of "action") to confidently practice the four noble truths and the eightfold path in the here and now, and leave these more speculative and controversial notions for another day (or another life).

aewhitehouse's picture

My observation of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States is that secular scholars dominate the landscape. The Tipitaka, Bon, Dzogchen, and the four individual lineages along with Ri-me all provide very compelling study to secularists like myself hungry for mind training and spirit conditioning, but in my experience have been very daunting to fully explore on a western householders schedule. Augmenting the landscape are Thupten Jinpa's translations of Tibetan classic texts on Lojong, and the great western teachers that have come up over the previous two generations like Bob Thurman, Reginald Ray, Jeffrey Hopkins, and so many others who have vitalized the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. All this seemingly infinite material is very compelling to secular spiritualists in the US who have been raised the on Judeo-Christian de riguer, and when I discovered Tibetan Buddhism in the mid-90's I gravitated to it like being shot out of a cannon.

Given the current situation of Chinese rule in Tibet, the smaller concentration of Tibetans in Nepal and Dharamsala, the questions around the selection of the future Dalai Lama, and the propagation of English translations in the West, Tibetan Buddhism's best chance of survival rests in its continued proliferation through bookstores, lecture halls, and loose sanghas in non-traditional settings like North America, Australia, and Europe.

Edit: I have framed this response around Tibetan Buddhism because it has been closest to personal experience over the previous 17 years.

NancyLanceAlot's picture

Dharma awakening in the West has triggered as many nerve endings as there are teachings. And it is practiced by all kinds -- householders, monastics, yogis and yoginis, atheists, scholars, those with simple peasant-like faith, and also glorious mad people in the streets. All possible ways to get there, One result is sought: Enlightenment. Because until we are enlightened our doubts, confusions, arguments, exhortations are just a steaming pile of dung.

Richard Fidler's picture

The discussion here seems dominated by those who would happily expel Batchelor from the Buddhist community over his lack of allegiance to some sort of tradition. To those who say he is condemning other traditional forms I would say "Show me where he has written that." To me he was simply expressing the way he, as a person with secular values, can reconcile Buddhist teachings with modern ideas such as the absence of a "soul", the unreasonableness of an afterlife, Asian conceptions of karma that go beyond the Western notion of interdependence, rebirth, enlightenment seen as a particular attainment of a mystical state, and more. I do not see how his view is an affront to anyone; it is just his interpretation. If it bothers, walk on!

ianjbarton's picture

Well said. I get the feeling that some of the commentators would happily form a lynching mob. Rather sad really.

william.g.bohrer's picture

In my observation, that's what organized religion most often begets: An unwillingness to explore individual interpretations of a spiritual path, and a rigid definition of "True Believers". The notion that you have to believe everything, or you are not a "real" Buddhist/Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu/you-name-it. WEll here's a little remembered fact: The first Buddha was not "A Buddhist" just as Christ was not "A Christian".

I don't agree with all of Batchelor's beliefs and disbeliefs expressed in this article, but I am very agreeable to discussing them. And I myself have been unable to commit to any particular buddhist tradition, because each and every one I've visited, I've been asked to believe everything, and have faith in the parts I had problems reconciling; a practice abandoned when I left behind some, but not all, of my Catholic upbringing.

celticpassage's picture

I agree with glkogut and wtompepper.
There are so many problems with this article that it almost boggles the mind.
The author comes across as a rank amateur as far as his thought process is concerned, not only with Buddhism but religion in general.

It’s starting to make (the pessimistic) side of me wonder if some people consider attending a Buddhist monastery for as long as they can stand it as an actual career path.

What you do is go to the monastery for as long as you can take it (or the fastest route--short stay at more than one monastery, and get your picture taken with the Dalai Lama), then leave and write a book or (hopefully) 12 about what Buddhism really is and how you’re amazing insights are very important for the Buddhist community (who apparently have to be nice and find something good to say about you and your new book no matter what). Then there’s the ‘talk’ circuit, web training, online (paid membership) “Sanghas” etc. And viola, a comfy living can be obtained.

Of course, this is probably not the author's particular intention or lifestyle, but it does seem that anyone wha has ever been even remotely connected to a monastery writes a book these days.

ryanedwardcraig's picture

Maybe you should research his past, or read his book. It's much more deep and makes sense and his past is more credible than any of ours I'm sure.

djlewis's picture

I agree with your critique of Batchelor as a sloppy thinker -- I don't think he could pass Philosophy 101 with his level of "reasoning".

wtompepper's picture

celticpassage: You seem to be fed up with praising the emperor's burgundy robes. I'd love to hear more about your own practice--to you have a Buddhist community where your brand of frank insistence on cutting through the feel-good BS is tolerated? Telling the truth doesn't seem to be part of the culture of American Buddhism; comforting platitudes and reassurance that our existing beliefs are supported by ancient wisdom are the norm. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the Speculative Non-buddhism website.

celticpassage's picture

Hi wtompepper.

LOL. I just saw this now. Seems to me that this site isn't that great empowering users to keep track of conversations they may be interested in following, unless of course there are features that I'm not aware of which is entirely possible since I don't spend a lot of time here.

I actually don't respect anyone above anyone else, and try not to behaviorally distinguish between people. After all, an emperor is nothing more than a person and nothing less. To me, titles (and 'achievements') are totally without merit and are empty. I don't respect the president of the U.S. or a CEO of a major corporation any more than the local primary school custodian, sanitary engineer, or parking enforcement officer.

With regard to Sanghas: I think most people go to them for the same reasons they generally go to church: to comfort the ego with things like inclusion, ritual, and fuzzy warm feelings of self-involvement and 'love'. (I'm sure most enjoy going to Sangha's and Churches for these reasons although these could form 2% or 98% of the motivation for attendance). From what I've seen the membership of Sanghas is about the same as churches in this regard. I don't attend a Sangha right now since there isn't one anywhere near me. But when I do, I do tend to be forthright (although I try to be civil at the same time: which is easier to do in person than online.).

It seems the only Sangha I was in where we could cut each other up while everyone had a great time doing it but nevertheless shared a common concern and respect for each other was grad school.

I did discover the Speculative Non-Buddhist (SNB) website and joined, but I haven't really been back to it since then; maybe once or twice...I barely have time to check out Tricycle. From what I've noticed, SNB does seem to be a place where you can criticize without worrying so much about how others will 'feel' about it.

Discussions here tend to be more concerned about how people feel about things than what is being talked about, which of course begs the question. For example, I was dismayed to find that responses to some of my posts shortly after joining Tricycle were full of personality and spiritual assessments designed to help me 'grow' past whatever blockage I had with nair a word on the topic at hand. This seems to have improved, since I don't see as much of that anymore (I think...although I definitely don't read everything that comes on here for sure). Either that, or I'm just mostly being ignored...lol.

Phew! That was longwinded!

cloughley's picture

This is an interesting take on a difficult topic. Stephen Batchelor seems to be attempting to find a way of getting to the core of Buddhism through the use of the early Pali texts and unraveling what was unique about Gautama Buddha's insights, philosophy and genius and what was a derivative of the culture of the countries it developed in.

After 2500 years and only fragments of the original evidence available, this is not a trivial task. He raises a number of big, challenging questions which in my view, deserve serious consideration.

Is karma, rebirth and metaphysicsan essential part of Buddhism or just an optional extra?

Are the four noble truths/tasks, the eightfold path and enlightenment a mystical insight or a more effective and less problematic way of dealing with our powerful greed, hatred & delusional programming?

What are the boundaries of Buddhism or is it more of a loose federation of overlapping beliefs?

And finally of course, how do we know what the real "truth" is and what is opinion, how much have we invested in it all, and how does this all matter in our daily lives?

An excellent article raising some big questions which I don't think are going to go away.

gribneal's picture

I agree with your reply. Although I don't label myself as a Buddhist, I am drawn to much of what Buddhism says about life, and when not too wrapped up in my own ego, I attempt to apply it to my own life. One of the things that attracted me was the idea that the hoop was large enough for most of us to jump through. And, yes, the ever-elusive "truth." I tend to suspect those who tell me they know what it is.

dharmadragon's picture

I agree with glkogut. It is not what he says , as much as what he dose not say. I do like the way he looks at if from a different point of view, which always helps me see mine more clearly.

cynthiagray@hotmail.com's picture

As a Christian who is fairly new to meditation and Buddhist teachings and practice, I appreciate Mr. Batchelor's discussion here. I've come to feel that no argument needs to be made for transcendence. A sincere practice of the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha lead to refinements in thought and behavior which bless the practitioner and the world. Whether these refinements lead to transcendence of some sort is for each person to discover. I question whether all of the statements attributed to Jesus were actually said by him, similar to Mr. Batchelor's questions about statements of the Buddha. I trust that Jesus did say something along the line of "The kingdom of heaven is within you," because I feel and experience that at times when I'm mindful. I incline toward the belief that this points to something eternal, but I don't care to insist that anyone go with me in that belief. Whether life continues beyond this experience or not, I'm blessed by these teachings either way.

wtompepper's picture

I think your response goes to the heart of why some people question Stephen Batchelor's approach. Why would a Christian be interested in Buddhist teachings, instead of investigating the Christian tradition of meditation? Buddhist teaching rejects the belief in a creator god, which is fundamental to Christianity, right? If one can bracket off the concept of transcendence as optional, why bother to still call yourself Christian at all? I'm sure someone who rejects the idea the there is a transcendent God and an afterlife would not be easily accepted as Christian in most denominations, right?

Batchelor rejects the core concepts of Buddhism, and wants to preserve those teachings that are in accord with what hundreds of Western thinkers have taught. For most Buddhists, this simply raises the question: Why bother to call yourself a Buddhist? Why not just call yourself, say, an eclectic philosopher? What is added to Batchelor's beliefs by the label "Buddhism"? Is it just to give his Western philosophical beliefs a new-age, mystical flavour?

I'm all for people learning about Buddhist teaching and practice. I just don't see the value in telling the Buddhists they are wrong about what "real" Buddhism is. If, after learning about Buddhism, one cannot accept the core concepts of the teaching, then just don't be a Buddhist.

nortonsleeper's picture

When questioned about God(s) Buddha's reply was not a rejection that there could be or there is a God...he was noncomittal on the subject ... basically refusing to even discuss it....(just my understanding of the teachings)...(he also had the same response regarding a 'soul')
@ Tom...If I have misunderstood please tell me where I can become 'enlightened' on the subject... :-)

wtompepper's picture

What is your source for this? I think if you just try to find out where this "fake Buddha quote" comes from, and understand what it actually says, that will enlighten you!

cynthiagray@hotmail.com's picture

I believe your comments are directed more toward Mr. Batchelor than to me. I don't consider myself a Buddhist, but I appreciate the teachings and I appreciate the discussion and the struggle to get it right.

wtompepper's picture

Yes, most of my questions were meant to indicate the kinds of questions Buddhists have about Batchelor. My point was to raise this question: when those who are Christians or just interested in Buddhism casually decide to learn about it, why do they try to do so by focusing on those, like Stephen Batchelor, who teach them "Buddhism without all that Buddhist stuff"? Why not, if it is just a matter of curiosity, actually investigate the core beliefs of Buddhism? If one is merely interested in those ideas in Buddhist teaching that align with western thought, why not just study philosophy--which can be just as helpful in solving life's problems as "secular Buddhism"?

Sareen's picture

My understanding is that belief is not necessary. Follow the meditation instructions and see what arises.

wtompepper's picture

Belief is always necessary. Nobody would follow meditation instructions for long without some belief that something would happen. The question is whether they are believing in the right thing.

robmounsey's picture

I must disagree; I don't see that any particular beliefs are necessary. One may very well do meditation practice with attention and without any preconceptions -- indeed, it's the LACK of beliefs that seems more necessary to me. Is a bare curiousity a "belief"? Or is a belief that absolutely anything can happen a "belief"? I don't know.

Sareen's picture

That was and is not true for me. I did start with a yearning for something different than my conditoned experience, and if you are calling that belief, then we may be not understanding one another due to a confusion about words.

The reason Buddhism is my path is because there is no call to believe anything without confirming it in my own experience.

The beauty of it is that the practice actually changes my experience...I grow to know through practice that my current assessment will likely change as I continue to practice.

In my tradition, Dzogchen, we get introduced to rigpa(unconditioned experience, the deathless) but cannot hold that experience for long. It takes years and years of practice to undo the conditioning that prevents us from seeing clearly, but because we have had a glimpse, we know something about where we are headed.

wtompepper's picture

I wouldn't call "yearning" the same as belief, but you must have believed there was at least a chance that Dzogchen would give you this "something different" before you tried it, right? You didn't start Dzogchen thinking "this will absolutely not give me anything different, and will just be a silly dull waste of time," did you? Perhaps you did, but I can't imaging many people starting any practice that way--why would you bother?

One the "believe only your own experience" fallacy, read Thanissaro Bikkhu's essay in this issue! Best thing I've read in Tricycle in years.

Sareen's picture

The problem is words are really inaccurate. They just point the way. That is why practice is essential to realize the inner meaning of the words, whether the words are descriptive are proscriptive(This is the way it is or this is how do practice in order to realize how it is).