March 29, 2010

Stephen Batchelor’s “Deconstructing Buddhism”

These “Deconstructing Buddhism” talks by Batchelor at the Insight Meditation Center are pretty good. Even if you don’t agree with what he is saying, at least he presents his case clearly.

In dismissing the ideas of karma and rebirth as features of ancient Indian civilization not intrinsic to what the Buddha taught, Batchelor points out that Buddhism has reinvented itself everywhere that it’s gone (from Japan to the Himalayas) to suit the needs of the new host culture. Buddhism is not a fixed, static thing, Batchelor argues—it’s more like a living organism. The question now is, what shape will Buddhist teachings take in the West?

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Judy Topol's picture

I just read, Batchelor's BUDDHIST ATHEIST and found his writing and experiences fascinating. In it, I perceived his young life as that of the archetypal Jungian Puer, complete with hashish and free food and lodging for ten years. There is no disrespect intended, for his subject of "theism" is one discussed often among American Buddhist practitioners, and Mr. Batchelor remains respectful of his subjects (except for the time he imagines the Buddha with an ironic smile). But the Puer suffers from "terminal uniqueness", and as Joseph Campbell noted, "wherever there is an ashram, you will find inflation." (or in this case, dharma center). The Puer is also compelled to project his terminal uniqueness onto politics, which is where things get dicey, and the neurosis becomes less benevolent, laced as it is with "informed" religious tenets. Mr. Batchelor states that the young Siddhartha left the palace and wandered like a monk, ignoring the important fact that, no he didn't. Siddhartha practised with yogis for many years. Ignoring this little detail would be like ignoring the traditions of Abraham and Moses in defining Christ; Brahmanism here is a separate issue. Batchelor goes on to describe Buddha's eventual enlightenment as a footnote, as if to say it was just another daily event like chopping wood and carrying water. No, it wasn't. Batchelor states that when he himself disrobed, he "could have gone to university, like so many others" (Puer red flag..."like so many others"). Robert Thurman comes to mind. Thurman didn't seem to find University debasing when he disrobed.
The point of my comments are not to disparage Mr. Batchelor's thesis of agnosticism (big whoop), but to point out the very real dangers of inflation and the dharma center. This is where the path is, "as dangerous as a razor's edge." Especially for advanced practitioners. Why? Not enough space here to go into it.

Archaeon's picture

notice the insistent need to be right? smell like anything else in religion? ‘believers are incurable’ and ‘doubt is what gives you an education’ To learn, really learn, suspend conditioned experience of opinion and surrender the battle of fear and control (e.g. for others being led astray) to win a new and astonishing way toward openness!

raja's picture

Genetics is nothing to do with the mind (unless you understand how the mind creates genomes through karma) so it’s an enormous red herring that leads to the wrong view that the brain is the mind or that body creates the mind

Carlos's picture

Can someone explain the taste of chocolate so another can know how it taste, no it is not possible, well the Buddha said “do not believe what I say try by yourself” it is because of the same reason.
There is something to be understood or awakening to that is appreciated by going to the moon instead of looking the finger pointing to it.
Everything the Buddha taught are tools to use to go to the moon not directives to believe in, more, any belief that one can have actually will work against going to the moon, what is needed is faith in what Buddha taught , that is not the same as beliefs in these teachings as if these beliefs were already all that you have to understand.
“Buddhism without beliefs”… .catchy

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”

Bill's picture

Hello Ted,

Thanks for your reply. Modern science is not right, unfortunately. The mind is not material and it's not a crapshoot. As I said in my earlier post, scientists are coming from the point of view of ignorance so much of what they perceive and therefore conclude is incorrect. They don't even know what the mind is and are mistaken about what produced it.

Buddha taught that everything is created by the mind in the same way that the mind creates dreams, therefore things like genomes are creations of the mind and thus creations of karma.

There's nothing presumptive about saying that only Buddha's teachings show a flawless method for realizing our own mind as this can be proved through logic and experience. I'm not being presumptive, I'm speaking from experience. Buddhism is entirely rational and doesn't need science to validate it. What Buddha taught is more valid than what scientists conclude because Buddha 'knows' whereas scientists draw conclusions which may be wrong.

Ted Christopher's picture


When you say something like "mind creates genomes through karma" it doesn't make sense. Your genome came from your parents via the random crapshoot that is conception. And "Only Buddha’s teachings show a flawless method to do this" is entirely presumptive.

If modern science is right an individual - including their mind - is a material-only entity with an original and deep DNA definition, which again came via the crapshoot of conception. If this is accurate this model can be pursued to improve an individual's life. Perhaps not like Ray Kurzweil envisioned, but nonetheless if accurate the model could be useful.

Also if accurate the model would largely remove the reincarnation/rebirth hypothesis from relevance. The stuff that makes you you - particular personality, behavioral tendencies, health tendencies - would be relegated to material-only artifacts of conception.

The failures of the DNA-origin searches - so far for intelligence and disease susceptibilities - are consistent with a transcendental perspective on life, a connection that is necessarily non-material. This traditional perspective if validated could offer a number of constructive updates on how we view life, and also provide a rational basis for a religious perspective on life, including a Buddhist one.

Bill's picture

Genetics is nothing to do with the mind (unless you understand how the mind creates genomes through karma) so it's an enormous red herring that leads to the wrong view that the brain is the mind or that body creates the mind. Yes, there is a relationship between the two but even though trauma to the brain can impair mental function, they are not the same. Let's consider an example. If there is a failure in the hardware of a computer, it can impair the function of the software. Someone who doesn't know about computers might therefore conclude that the software and the hardware are therefore one and the same, but they aren't. They have a relationship but they are distinct entities with different natures.

Sadly, because our human mental faculties are degenerating as times become more spiritually degenerate, few people are able to use the logical analysis that is needed in order to prove without doubt that the mind and the body, though related, are not the same. Even if people follow this analysis they remain unconvinced due to the imprints of wrong views. It's a bad time where materialism and scientific literalism are people's authorities and they are easily misled by them.

Scientists are obscured by the darkness of ignorance that stops them from understanding the different natures of the mind and body. You can't measure the mind using a machine - wisdom is the only tool that can unlock the secrets of the mind. Only Buddha's teachings show a flawless method to do this.

Ted Christopher's picture


Trent, the issue is more subtle than that.

Turn it around and ask yourself the following.

If the material model of life is complete/accurate how can two replicas born and raised together (and seemingly self-adhered) be so different? Monozygotic twins are more different that alike personality-wise and it matters little whether they were separated at birth. Their health/longevity trajectories are not far (on average) from those of complete strangers.

If the model is good than why are geneticists now joking about the apparent "dark matter" of the genome in the wake of finding almost no connection between the susceptibilities to common diseases and common variations in DNA. Ditto for connections between variations in intelligence test scores and common variations in the DNA.

There are many more big questions for the curious. Scientists and their followers, though, have basically roped off any serious questioning of the material-only model life as though you would have to be an idiot to want to pursue such questioning. I think they have it backwards.

Trent's picture

If mind and body are so fundamentally different, can you explain to me how awareness and mental function can be impaired by trauma to the brain?

Bill's picture

Rebirth becomes apparent when you apply logic to the experience of watching your own mind. You see that your mind and body are different natures so there's no way that the four elements can give rise to consciousness. When you see the continuity of consciousness, rebirth is not a doctrine but a direct experience.

Buddha was teaching from his own experience so he taught about rebirth but we can gain the same experience through meditation and applying logical analysis.

drosera's picture

I do not see that Buddhism has anything to do with accepting doctrines--beliefs in the supernatural in particular. Instead, it has to do with practice--the practice of mindfulness above all. A guru is not necessary to gain a Buddhist perspective--after all, Gotama himself gave up reliance on wise men of his time and insisted on exploring his own consciousness to find the truth. Certainly teachers can heighten the sense of dialogue and suggest solutions to problems, but faith in such teachings does not go far in leading one to new understanding. What is needed is a heartfelt sense of inquiry--only through such a search do answers become apparent.

Paramittas's picture

Karma and Rebirth are basic Universal Truths and they are very important concepts. A True Buddhist would understand and believe in Karma - this is the first realization. Take a look at the 12 Dependent Origination and learn the Rebirth process again. As a respect to Buddha's teachings and Universal Truths, never speculate the Truths at the intellectual level. There are even scientific evidence on these. Have faith in the Universal Truth and asked forgiveness from the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha if one still couldn't believe in Karma and Rebirth. Understanding Karma and Rebirth will help one in the spiritual practice, if not, one will just stuck in the intellectual level of the belief.

Tanya's picture

What Buddha taught is not easy to understand for most people even though it is the simpliest truth. If direction of mind going outward, there would be million of opinions, and all basically would be missing the mark. Mr. Batchelor and similar "experts" base their ideas on thoughts of their outward perception. No matter what the tradition, all greatest teachers taught the same thing - that there is a great treasure inside, in the depth of mind, it is the foundation of your mind, and everything has that foundation. And not just Buddhism, Jesus said clearly about seeing with inner eyes, that what people searching for is within. Also Sufi mentions the same thing.That simple truth is difficult only because mind is looking outward, like not seeing your own face. Seen how planets go around sun and stars go around the centre of galaxy? They are going around because they just cannot go straight, kind of like rounds of rebirth.People would believe just about anything but believing inward within themselves seems most difficult. By practising looking inward your own mind you can discover things for yourself. If you want to learn something, learn from the best, from someone who is the trusted source of teachings, not just a phylosophiser, otherwise it would be like exploring ocean by endlessly gliding on the waves instead of going to the depth.

Rebecca's picture

Donnalee: Well said! I note that this debate is very unbuddhist, in my opinion.

Richard Fidler's picture


Thanks for your participation in this discussion. When I talked about the Buddhist view that humans structured the world with conceptual thought, I was thinking of the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, each feeling a different part and coming up with different descriptions. This allegory implies the postmodern ideas of the relativism of truth are correct: that science is just one way of looking at the world. No scientist accepts that view. Scientists would argue that there is a reality "out there", that people (because their senses and technology are inadequate), may not get a complete picture, but the search for an absolute truth is not a fruitless endeavor. To be honest, I am not sure if Gotama even considered these questions in this way. After all, when we are immersed in a culture of a certain time and place, only certain questions seem important.

In your discussion you made some interpretations of Buddhist thinking which are based upon modern understanding of physical phenomena. The four primaries of matter are not to be identified with the four states of matter; no one back then had that advanced understanding. And your statement that Gotama saw the world as made up of a stream of particle waves sounds more like modern quantum mechanics rather than Buddhist discourse of 500 B.C.E.

Implicit to your discussion is the idea that Gotama, through his religious understanding, came to understand how everything works: karma, rebirth, quantum physics, computers... This, I would deny. Like Stephen Batchelor, I see him as an extraordinarily inventive person who simply urged people to become aware of their thoughts, memories, dreams, perceptions, and so on--and by so doing, to understand the conditioned nature of all things. By that understanding--and understanding is too weak a word, but I prefer it to enlightenment or awakening--they are able to lead happier lives with less suffering.

As for your friend's experiences reliving a past life, I must remain agnostic about that. Science insists on replication and an experience such as you describe cannot be replicated. Science also demands a mechanism by which people can visit other times and places without moving from where they are. In the end, you are choosing non-science over science--and that is fine, but it has nothing to do with Buddhism. Gotama's ideas, while having some superficial resemblances to modern science, are pre-scientific. Even so, they may be mined to help us find peace in the world.

Kenneth Elder's picture

Richard Fidler wrote: “Even certain of his teachings are, to an extent, not true in the light of modern scientific knowledge. For example, his statement that the physical world is structured and delineated by conceptual thought is not totally accurate. Water (almost) always is made up of two parts hydrogen to one of oxygen, a concept, perhaps, but not an arbitrary one. Conceptual thought does not “create” that reality. There is structure “out there.” If he was wrong about that and about other ideas rooted in the limited perspective of his culture, isn’t it possible he would be wrong about rebirth and karma?” The “Mind Only” teaching of Tibetan Tantric sects is not the original teaching of the Buddha who emphasized that all consciousness gross and subtle, far and near was impermanent, suffering and no-Self. In the oldest Buddhist texts, the Theravada Pali Sutta Buddha lists the four primaries of matter, earth, water, air and fire (solids, liquids, gases and ionized matter) as conditional reality along with the conditional reality of mind. Nibbana (Nirvana) is said to be beyond body and mind and is an unconditional reality. It is how we perceive the ever-changing mind body process as some ego that is an illusion. What continues from body to body is a process like a river not some static ego thing.
The common other criticism of Buddha’s talk about the world disc as unscientific is a misunderstanding that these levels such as the Four King God realm actually refers to the astral and Brahma levels of existence beyond our dense 3-D level. Buddha said that all matter is particle waves in the void which has been confirmed by science. When Buddha talked about the Dharma Wheel Turning World King who peacefully becomes ruler of a whole world due to great good karma and he said that a disc shaped (wheel) ship would hover outside the King’s palace room and said that this ship was intelligent like a living being but was not a living being. That is the only way he could explain a computer to pre-tech folk. There are many such jewels of science in the Sutta. Wisdom if not bound by culture it is seeing the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and no-Self. Some scientists have found indirect proof of rebirth. Any skeptic can try past life regression with a meditative/hypnotic method. It is fear of the unknown that holds the skeptic in a materialistic outlook. When a lesbian friend of mine in San Francisco was in a crises period in the 1980’s I took her to the Panhandle park and led her in a visualization method into a past life where she was a male Crow Native American with an ideal female mate and part of a rich spiritual culture. When we began there were no crow birds nor any crow sound but by the end of the session hundreds of crows were covering the surrounding trees and cawing loudly. I have often lived in the woods in several states in several states practicing Buddhist meditation and never seen such a phenomena which is even more rare in a major city. My friend was deep under that it wasn’t until she came out and saw and heard the birds and began crying with joy at this synchronicity of confirmation.

Glen's picture

All i have come to really know, since i first came across the Buddhist teachings, is that the more i became honest with myself, and said 'look Glen, if you dont know something, admit it, and let it go.'..the less i suffered from mental agitation. Now thats not to say discard it, or cling to discarding it, or cling to holding it or anything - its just admitting that i dont know, i dont know what happens when i die, the buddha might have, fair play, but how does that help me? Someone can tell you all they want, but unless you know it for yourself, it means nothing at all.

Richard Fidler's picture

It has been accepted among many Buddhists that wisdom gathers, much like dust on a mantle, with time spent in meditation and practice. But what if it doesn't? What if practice leads to a diminution of suffering through mindfulness, but doesn't really lead to powerful insights about rebirth, karma, psychology, or epistemology? "Wisdom" is bound by culture and doesn't have anything to do with what Buddha taught. He communicated a means to deal with suffering--as Donnalee writes above in describing the impact of practice on her life. And that is all we should expect. It seems like a terrific basis for a religion--at least to me.

Glen's picture

The way i see it, is don't throw out the idea of rebirth. Just practice, and if you come to some profound realisation of rebirth, then well done. I have not yet, but neither did the Buddha until his enlightenment under the Bo tree did he? Holding some 'belief' in reincarnation without any direct knowledge (not some intellectual crap) wont help you, all beliefs are to be let go of arent they?

Donnalee's picture

This is my first day as a substaining member of Tricycle - and the first discussion I read is the argument over Batchelor's teachings - maybe I'm just a "Baby Buddhist" but it seems to me The Buddha would have loved this discussion. Everyone is trying to win out over the other - "I'm more Buddhist than you". This is craking me up (LOL). The pro reincarnation arguments seem to be a sound like my fundamentist Christian friends - gotta love em. If you want to believe in reincanation - believe in reincarnation. If you don't, don't. Everyone walks thier own path, correct? Or can you only be a Buddhist by walking on one of the Buddhist Super Highways? I'd love to say I was convinced that reincarnation was a truth - but the jury in my mind is still pondering the question ... and what if there is no reincarnation, would that make the Dharma Teachings any less valuble? I think not - Mindfulness and Compassion - these are tools Human Beings can utilize in our daily challenges to survive and thrive. Now I'm confused... maybe I'm not a Buddhist at all.. just a western agnostic searching for Truth and An End to Suffering. Would Buddha have minded that I use His Teachings every day? even if I'm not a "perfect" Buddhist? All I know is that the Dharma is making a big difference in my world and the worlds I touch. My suffering and the suffering around me has lessened - and wasn't that Buddha's intention: To End Suffering? I'm totally and utterly confused - and OK with that. More than enough said - Everyone: Be Well - Live Long and Prosper!

Richard Fidler's picture

Why does it matter so much that Buddhism accurately reflect the teachings of Gotama? After all, he was a single person, born and brought up in the culture of his time, able to articulate his take on who we are and how we can be better people. But that does not mean he had everything right. After all, he did not know about scientific methodology or about the insights of science as regards the origins of life and ourselves. Even certain of his teachings are, to an extent, not true in the light of modern scientific knowledge. For example, his statement that the physical world is structured and delineated by conceptual thought is not totally accurate. Water (almost) always is made up of two parts hydrogen to one of oxygen, a concept, perhaps, but not an arbitrary one. Conceptual thought does not "create" that reality. There is structure "out there." If he was wrong about that and about other ideas rooted in the limited perspective of his culture, isn't it possible he would be wrong about rebirth and karma? We should not put ourselves in the position of venerating teachings just because they have antiquity and the authority of a respected religious teacher. We have to make judgments about the truth of those teachings based upon all the information we can get.

amy melson's picture

Kenneth, I appreciate your stories, once you've had a first hand experience like that it is no longer a matter of belief. My friend told me when she was a little girl she had a recurring nightmare about being a young boy forcibly separated from his family. A family member who slept in her room recognized that when she dreamed this dream she spoke out loud in Italian, even though she didn't know the language consciously. Later she came across information about the forced conscription of boys under Mussolini and recognized the connection.

In this life she has four wonderful children and a beautiful husband, is a truly beautiful person and her life is all about family. No wonder, I don't think she has any interest in being pulled away again.

Kenneth, I think you are entirely correct about Academic/scientific materialism, and it is also prevalent in the US. The point I was trying to make before is perhaps better said this way: If one can truly redeem the present self, it seems the future self would be protected as well. It is intent expressed in the present that shapes the future. But there's a lot I don't know, so perhaps I should, as Richard suggests, not speak! I'm just concerned about how it can be destructive when people are caught up in speculation, when belief systems and attachments polarize and divide people and obscure the common ground. It's the a passion play of the self-grasping mind, isn't it? The peace of all is found beyond words.

amy melson's picture

Kenneth, I appreciate your stories, once you've had a first hand experience like that it is no longer a matter of belief. My friend told me when she was a little girl she had a recurring nightmare about being a young boy forcibly separated from his family. A family member who slept in her room recognized that when she dreamed this dream she spoke out loud in Italian, even though she didn't know the language consciously. Later she came across information about the forced conscription of boys under Mussolini and recognized the connection.

In this life she has four wonderful children and a beautiful husband, is a truly beautiful person and her life is all about family. No wonder, I don't think she has any interest in being pulled away again.

Kenneth, I think you are entirely correct about Academic/scientific materialism, and it is also prevalent in the US.

David's picture

There are kooky people in every belief system. Hi!

Richard's picture

Thanks to all the posters here that remind me of how rediculous some views of buddhism. Some of the posts make me want to go back to my more sensible religion of youth where god knocks up a virgin who gives birth to himself. He preformes some IMPOSSIBLE miracles and plagarizes others moral lessons, has himself killed and if we believe all these logic propositions we will have eternal life. Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak!

Kenneth Elder's picture

I have read Buddhism Without Belief by Batchelor. Buddha described the religious agnostic sophists in his day as eel-wrigglers. Buddha also said that any view that denied karma and its fruit (which includes other lives) was a pernicious doctrine tending to cause a bad rebirth. The twin delusions are the uccheda-ditthi annihilation view of materialism and the sassata-ditthi eternal self view of some unchanging soul or Self. An ever changing mental process goes from body to body until Nirvana is realized. There is scientific evidence for psychic phenomena. Academic materialism especially common in Britain is a sterile false philosophy as extreme as Monotheistic Fundamentalism. Someone with wrong view like Batchelor cannot lead one to Liberation, to the Stream-entry level of Nirvana. It makes me think that the leaders of the IMC must not be Stream-enterers to have such a man with such serious wrong view teaching at IMC. In the early 1980’s I worked at the Deaf/Blind Annex of the Texas School for the Blind in Austin Texas. The main facility was once the Confederate (US Civil War) Widows Nursing Home and many staff saw or heard one or two lady ghosts in the white petticoat dresses of antebellum Southern women. The last of the widows died in the 1930’s and had been taken care of by an abusive male attendant. The building is now an Eldercare agency and staffers in the 1990's were reporting seeing a white petticoat ghost. In the early 1980's one deaf teen girl with thick glasses would often sign about a man in a tree outside the windows and act frightened then curling up her fingers and banging her wrists together in a nervous gesture of fear. The Psychiatrist called this “hallucinations” and diagnosed her as schizophrenic. But one day when some staff and children had left the playground this teen girl and her lady worker came down to let this deaf girl swing on the swings. This teen girl pointed to one of the swings and made her nervous wrist banging gesture repeatedly and the worker looked and with not wind one of the swings continued to swing high up and down in an arc that was not winding down. The other swings were still and with no physical cause the swing continued to swing way up and down for a prolonged time with no decline. The lady worker realized with a shock that this deaf girl was not crazy, that she really had been seeing a male ghost. It reminds me of the old saying that in the land of the blind the one eyed man is called insane. Like the Beatles song the Fool On The Hill indicates those meditative recluses who awaken to higher truth are often condemned by the spiritually blind. The Buddhist ideal is to have the eye of wisdom with vipassana and the divine eye of psychic sight with concentration meditation. With the wisdom of Stream-entry one would never misuse psychic power. Those who blindly reject psychic vision are merely afraid of it.

Bill's picture

Buddhism is science. I was trained as a physicist and can definitely say that Buddhist logic and the scientific method have similarities. Buddha himself encouraged us to test his teachings as would gold, but he didn't say we should dismiss what he said simply because we find it difficult to believe it! This leads to 'pick and mix' spirituality where we design our own spiritual path that leads nowhere.

@Brandon, thanks for the challenge but I feel this forum is not the place for a Dharma teaching. The internet itself is a very unsatisfactory medium for transmitting Dharma which should always be an oral transmission if possible. I don't think it's about picking up a few disparate ideas off the internet but about disciplined and rigorous training, studying the subjects at the right time in the right order, etc, according to tradition. I would advise anyone who really wants to immerse themselves in what Buddha taught to find themselves an authentic Teacher in a valid lineage from whom they can learn and to study all the valid reasons why karma and rebirth exist. Stephen Batchelor had some great Teachers, but it seems he didn't listen to them, sadly. I'm sure this is due to obstructions in his own mind. Thanks for the reminder about Buddha's skilful means in helping Kisa Gotami find peace, it's a really inspiring story. I can only dream of such skill!

@amy, it matters to take refuge for the sake of the future self because that self will come to exist and without refuge, there is no protection from suffering. Karma exists and functions.

amy melson's picture

If time is fundamentally unreal, does it really matter if you take refuge for the sake of your future self? If self is unreal, does it matter what you believe? Isn't deliverance in Buddhism dependent on the realization of emptiness? How many different brands of Buddhist teachings are there? Who can follow them all? I'm not sure belief can matter, but radical, baseless hope always will.

Garth's picture

Buddhism is not science. Termas, just one example. Buddhism contains many religious beliefs. Some Buddhists even believe in gods, or that reincarnations of former masters can be identified (the Buddha didn't posit the latter, however).

But there's no sense in arguing, really. There is nothing wrong with a religious belief; it's just not to be confused with science, which requires experimentation and falsifiability.

Brandon's picture

@ Bill: in an earlier post you said: "Perfect reasons can be presented to someone but they might not accept them because of obstructions in their own minds." Is it possible, just possible that Batchelor has the perfect reasons, but that you won't accept them because of obstructions?

I'm sure you'd say the answer to this question is no. (LOL.)

You've also said that: "The reason why I’m so passionate about this issue is that I know, without faith in karma and rebirth, there is no liberation from suffering and that’s another human life wasted."

We agree that liberation from suffering is important.

But here's the rub, if you want people to be liberated from suffering it would really be helpful if you EXPLAINED why you know the truth of karma and rebirth. You've stated that you've "investigated this subject." Can you tell us about your investigations? You've said that you "taught it for many years." If you teach it, I assume you're teaching to people that are newbies to the path. What do you say to them? How do you get them to understand?

Earlier on Mike asked you explain. You said that you could explain, but that "obstructions" are the reasons why people may not understand. So basically, you're going to leave Mike in the dark? You're going to allow the other posters on here to continue suffering?! Isn't part of teaching finding the way to explain concepts in a way to people that they understand. When a woman came to the Buddha and asked him to raise her child from the dead, he said he'd do it if she could collect seed from the house where no one had died. (I apologize if I messed up the story.) When she couldn't do this, she realized the lesson he taught.

That's what skillful teachers do.

So, respectfully, I'm throwing down the gauntlet. If you care about liberating people from suffering, you'll tell the people here how you came to understand the facts of karma and rebirth. You can cite sources, texts, etc., that people should read. Perhaps they won't understand it because of obstructions, but at least you won't have missed an opportunity to help.

mike's picture

Bill, Thanks for your response. I think you express most eloquently the fundamental incompatibility of reason and religious certainty. When someone knows they are right beyond all possible doubt then there’s really no discussion to be had and it’s quite useless to point out flaws in their arguments. They are right whatever objections one advances, simply because they have mysterious access to a higher truth that trumps all counter-arguments. Indeed, the mere fact that one is questioning their belief is proof of ones own defective faculties!

This is, of course, true of all religions, leaving the impartial observer with a perplexing assortment of absolute but mutually exclusive truths to choose from. For the faithful, of course, the absurdity of this situation is missed entirely since for them it is axiomatic that anyone who doesn’t share their particular beliefs is just wrong and probably bound for some very unpleasant experience in the after-life.

Bill's picture

Hi Garth,

You won't find more critical and exacting thinkers than Buddhist teachers like Aryadeva, Chandrakirti, Nagarjuna, Dignaga and Dharmakirti. Buddhism is science - inner science. Nothing that Buddha taught needs to be accepted merely on blind faith but can be accepted through analytical and critical reasoning which is up there with the best of philosophical systems. Furthermore, science cannot explain everything but Buddhism can, therefore Buddhism is more valuable than outer science. As Mark said earlier, faith is crucial in Buddhism but that faith is supported by conclusive reasoning.

I don't accept that Buddhism is 'asian'. Stephen Batchelor's mistaken belief is that karma and rebirth are Indian cultural memes and that Buddha only talked about them because it was something his audience were familiar with and could relate to. (please correct me if I'm wrong on this, Brandon) Nothing could be further from the truth. I'd be interested to know what evidence Stephen Bathelor provides to support his view, other than his reluctance to accept something he can't perceive directly with his sense or mental awareness.

Garth's picture

The Buddha was wrong about geography and cosmology. Why couldn't he have been wrong about rebirth?

There are Christians who say that Christ's divinity can be proven; or that the virgin birth is literally true.That's fine, and it's likewise fine to believe, say, in the Buddha's omniscience or reincarnation as it's taught in the Tibetan religion. These claims are not empirically supported, but religion does not rely on empirical proofs.

Batchelor seems to recognize that a Western approach is also "religious" in its assumptions and in its search for meaning. But who can pretend that adopting the religious beliefs of an Asian tradition can make sense for most contemporary Western practitioners? I think attempts to claim empirical proofs for these beliefs betrays a deeper doubt than religious zealots would like to acknowledge. Unlike their Asian counterparts, Westerners are not content to simply accept that such beliefs are true, and for good reason--they're critical thinkers. In fact, to simply adopt these beliefs uncritically is to give up so much of what's best about Western scientific inquiry.

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Frank G.'s picture

"I also agree that’s it’s incorrect to call a non-theistic meditative discipline ‘Buddhism’ unless it incorporates everything that the Buddha taught."

I agree--this bottom lines the matter! What Batchelor believes is "Batchelorism." Batchelorism incorporates certain tenets of Buddhism like Christianity retains certain features of Judaism.

Bill's picture


Thanks for your comments. I watched the ABC interview with Stephen Batchelor and he says that, according to the traditional teaching of Buddhism, his lack of acceptance of karma and rebirth is a wrong view. I do really feel sorry for the guy. He obviously has very strong imprints of wrong views but my concern is that he is leading many people with similar tendencies to a spiritual dead end.

I don't feel the need to read Mr. Batchelor's books because his wrong view is not very sophisticated and can be refuted very easily. Despite what you say, I'm not attached to rebirth. I find it interesting that these days, if you express a view strongly, you are branded as being attached. The reason why I'm so passionate about this issue is that I know, without faith in karma and rebirth, there is no liberation from suffering and that's another human life wasted. I've investigated this subject and taught it for many years and for me, there are no doubts. I've proved to myself incontrovertibly that rebirth and karma are truths. I'm really not afraid of Mr. Batchelor's views, there is no possibility whatsoever that he's right any more than it's possible for night to be day. I understand what you mean though when you say it's useful to study the views of someone you disagree with because otherwise you will find something to shake your view, or something to make it even clearer and stronger. Either way you can learn.

@Mark, I agree with everything you've said. It's clear from Buddha's teachings that his frequent reference to karma and rebirth isn't just a cultural meme from India but pivotal ideas that are the bedrock of all the Noble Truths. I also agree that's it's incorrect to call a non-theistic meditative discipline 'Buddhism' unless it incorporates everything that the Buddha taught.

Mark's picture

No problem boss. As for the people lurking out there, well, they call some of them trolls for a reason..... :-)

Brandon's picture

I want to truly, truly, truly thank you for that thoughtful, respectful response. I've been starting to wonder what type of people inhabit the Buddhist blogosphere and whether they actually read, think and try to practice. Again, my thanks for engaging with me!

Mark's picture

I see what you are saying. And thank you for including that quote from Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso. That is more or less how I see things. Still, I don't think I'm expressing myself clearly here. I read Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs many moons ago so I might not be getting this completely right, but what he seems to be saying is that one can practice Buddhism without necessarily subscribing to everything the Buddha taught. Personally, I don't have a problem with that. At least not at a preliminary level of practice. I'm sure you will agree that insight has a way of revealing things over time. What I do take issue with is when people wholly divorce themselves from the possibility that things like rebirth and karma exist. Even an agnostic approach can be detrimental.

Let me give an example here. Congrats, I've just promoted you to the major leagues! You are up at bat and facing one of the best pitchers in the league. You've read the scouting report and you know that he has three pitches - a fastball, a slider, and one heck of a change-up. You know from from your years of practice that when someone is altering their grip on a pitch, they tend to flutter their glove as they manipulate their fingers around the ball. Change-ups tend to have the most complicated grips and guess what? You see the pitcher's glove moving a bit. When he throws the ball, you are much more inclined to guess change-up, wait on the pitch, and see it better when he finally throws.

The same thing is true with the Dharma. In this case, your scouting report is what the Buddha taught. Your years of practice, well, they are your years of dedicated sitting and study. Your "seeing" the pitch is insight. Let's say you take an agnostic approach your scouting report. Yeah, you may say, this guy could throw me a change-up, a fastball, or even a cutter or a knuckleball! Everything is equally possible and I want to be open to everything! You may also say that you don't really believe in the existence of fastballs or sliders. Yeah, the scouting report talks about them, but you've personally never seen one so there's really no proof that they actually exist. With that approach, you won't be looking for those little hints - those little flutters of the glove, the arm angle, etc. From a Buddhist perspective the Dharma is the ultimate scouting report on reality. It gives you the universe's whole play book when it comes to enlightenment. (Well, that's provided that you believe that the Buddha was speaking from full and perfect penetration into the nature of reality. If not, there's not much point to this conversation is there?) With that playbook in hand, you are much more likely to be able to detect those subtle hints into the nature of the world when they present themselves. Maybe you will begin to see karma as it plays itself out. Maybe you will grow to have faith in the eightfold path as you see the benefits of following all aspects of it. Practice is a gradual culmination of these tiny insights based on subtle clues. If you don't believe in these things or agnostically expect for them to one day pummel you over the head with there obvious and unmistakable reality I think is to set yourself up for unneeded difficulty.

Btw...if faith doesn't play such a crucial role in Buddhism, if you didn't have faith that enlightenment is possible, why bother practicing at all? ;-)

Brandon's picture

@Mark: I know you asked for a quote and that makes me wonder whether you've read Batchelor's books as well. lol. I'm puzzled at how can one offer a precise critique of thoughts or texts with which one is unfamiliar, but ok.

As for statements like "the truth of the matter is that faith plays a crucial role in Buddhist practice" or that a practice without faith in karma and rebirth is "non-theistic meditative tradition," those are opinions and conclusions. Those aren't facts. (And please note that Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso had an interesting article in the most current issue of Tricycle where he says: "the way in which one arrives at one’s faith is important. When faith arises as a result of analysis, it is much more stable, because that analysis will astutely detect and be able to resolve whatever doubts one might have." Isn't that what Batchelor's trying to do?)

And as for talking about what Buddhism "is," how exactly does one do that? If Buddhism "IS" something, then doesn't that mean it "ISN'T" something else? And if Buddhism IS something, then what about all of the teachings on emptiness. The concept of emptiness has been described by some as the notion that "the impermanent nature of form means that nothing possesses essential, enduring identity." Does emptiness apply to everything BUT Buddhism?

What about impermanence itself? If Buddhism "IS" something, then it must be something static. But, it cannot be static because didn't the Buddha also teach that everything was impermanent and changing? Isn't the notion that one needs to stop clinging to the view that the world is static, and embrace the fact that it is constantly changing, one of the Buddha's insights?

I guess all that's to say I'm not attached to whether there is or isn't rebirth. I love Buddhism's rich intellectual tradition and that the Buddha told us to evaluate his teachings. I hope people never stop asking questions.

Mark's picture

One last point now that I'm on it - I think we in the West have a very romanticized notion of what Buddhism actually is. We like to read it as a non-theistic solution to religion. The truth of the matter is that faith plays a crucial role in Buddhist practice so much so that degrees of enlightenment are available to those who follow the Buddha's word on faith exclusively. One can practice a kind of non-theistic meditative tradition and benefit magnificently from it. All the same, what you are practicing is just that - a non-theistic meditative discipline. With all due respect, please do no call this Buddhism.

Mark's picture

I think I'm missing something in this thread. Does anyone have a quote from Batchelor where he addresses the reasons why the Buddha might have mentioned reincarnation/karma if it wasn't an essential point of the Dharma? Whether he's read any of Batchelor's books or not, I think Bill makes a very valid point. The sutras are filled with copious references to the very things Batchelor marks as non-essential or unproven.

The Buddha was extremely precise in his teachings. As a matter of fact, he not only mentions karma throughout the Sutta Pitaka, he also is careful to distinguish how his idea of karma differs from that found in the Vedas. In addition, the idea of past lives is directly tied to right understanding as it is found in description of the dhyanas especially in the Samnnaphala Sutta and the Mahasaccaka Sutta. Finally, if one does not believe in karma or reincarnation, how does one rationalize key Buddhist concepts such as pratityasamutpada (dependent origination)? I have a hard time swallowing the notion that the Buddha would have let these ideas "slip in" just because it was a contemporary cultural meme.

I can understand where Batchelor is coming from. It is very difficult to accept concepts like rebirth and karma especially in a society as skeptical as our own. Still, just because our culture inhibits an acceptance of these ideas doesn't mean that culture is wholly responsible for their origin. Buddhism does change when it moves to a new land, but the Dharma is always the same.

Brandon's picture

@ Bill: thanks for your message. It's clear where you stand so I'm not going to argue the "facts" with you. The reason is that once I understood the difference between perceptions and thoughts and thoughts and "facts," I realized I couldn't argue or discuss issues in the same way. I mean it's crazy to argue "facts" with people because much of what we believe to be facts aren't facts. They're thoughts-- mine included.

With that as a backdrop, I'd like to offer a few THOUGHTS.

Thought 1: If you are truly committed to liberating people from suffering, you NEED to read Batchelor's books. You need to be able to respond to his arguments and discuss why he's incorrect so that those you can convince those that you think are being led astray to come back into the fold. It will be very hard for people to respect your perspective when you are offering a critique about a person, his thoughts, ideas, etc., when you haven't read ANY of his books. When I read your most recent comments, it became apparent that you hadn't read his books.

Thought 2: Is declining to read Batchelor a sign of something else? Bill, I grew up in a family of Democrats. But, in college I took courses in subjects that challenged my world view. For one class, I wrote a paper analyzing Thomas Sowell-- the noted African American conservative. I chose Sowell because I was intrigued by the idea of an African American conservative and because I wondered whether my ideals would stand up to the scrutiny to which he would subject them. If they couldn't, maybe they needed to change. I enjoyed reading Sowell's work immensely. Even though I didn't wind up agreeing with him, I learned a great deal by reading his work and some of my views actually did change. (Sowell is an economist by training and a good bit of his work concerns the interplay of race and class.) All that's to say, I don't why you've refused to read Batchelor, but I suspect that there's a part of you that's afraid that he might be right. Have you actually sat down and asked yourself why you're so attached to this view in light of the fact that the Buddha said that attachment is what leads to suffering? In the past, you've said repeatedly that there's no point to The Path if there's no rebirth. That's a PERSPECTIVE. It may be the "best" perspective. It may even be the "right" perspective, but it's still a perspective. The "proof" that your thought about there being "no point" is a PERSPECTIVE is that there are numerous people who have told you that they see a value in the teachings even though they don't believe in rebirth. (See some of the comments above.)

Thought 3:Having READ Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, I think Batchelor's point really is that he hasn't seen any tangible evidence of rebirth. He doesn't say that rebirth doesn't exist. He is anti-rebirth. He says, I have a question. He says, I don't know. (I don't have the texts in front of me, but I think he literally uses the words "I don't know.") That's VERY different from trying to do things like, as you said in one memorable post, "lobotomize Buddhism."

Peace. B.

Bill's picture

@ mike. Alas, it's not that simple. Reasons do not exist from their own side and depend upon the mind of the person who hears them. Perfect reasons can be presented to someone but they might not accept them because of obstructions in their own minds. Buddhism contains the most sophisticated form of reasoning that would run rings around Western philosophers. If they failed to be impressed with it, I think it would point to their lack of insight.

@Brandon. Hello again my friend. I've not read any of Stephen Batchelor's books, I just know that he doubts karma and rebirth and says they are not necessary to practise the truths that Buddha taught which is enough for me to realize that his books are not for me. If it were true that rebirth did not exist, why did Buddha himself talk about past lives, who he was in those lives and the relationship he had at that time with his father and mother, Devadatta (his jealous cousin), Ananda and so forth? He would have been lying and therefore contradicting his own teaching on abandoning lying. He talked many times in the sutras about rebirth and he told many stories about rebirth and karma such as those in the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish. Was Buddha lying and therefore contradicting his own teachings? Given the brilliant complexity and insight in his teachings about the nature of reality, I think not. In any case, it can be proved with logic that Buddha cannot lie because his mental continuum does not contain the causes of deception. If this were not the case, it would become impossible to become free from intentional deception and Nirvana could never be attained since it would be impossible to practise the Eightfold Path.

mike's picture

Bill, The kind of proofs you refer to are not proofs in any sense that would be recognised in western philosophical thought. I well recall being presented with such 'proofs' for the first time by a Tibetan teacher in India. I was among a group of western students and we all felt frankly rather embarrassed that anyone should regard these reasonings as prooving anything at all. I have certainly never encountered a Buddhist teacher in the west who was rash enough to argue that rebirth, karma or the Buddha's infallibility were 'facts' that could be proven. All accepted that these were matters of faith. If you are in possession of some genuine proofs that the rest of us don't know about then I'm sure we would all be most grateful to learn of them. You could clear the whole matter up at a stroke. Indeed, if the logic was sound then the entire world would be obliged to accept these doctrines and you would achieve a mass conversion to Buddhism unprecedented in history.

Brandon's picture

Bill, again I ask: which book(s) of Batchelor's have you read?

Bill's picture

"The Buddha’s reluctance to address the metaphysical is consistent with Stephen’ reluctance to accept that which “cannot be known”."

Rebirth and karma can be known. They can be proven through logical reasoning such as that given by Dignaga and Dharmakirti. It can also be proven that error has a cause and if someone is free from the cause of error, they are free from error. Furthermore it can be proven that Buddha is just such a person and so what he teaches can be accepted. This kind of logical analysis is quite different from the Kalama Sutta where you just accept something that someone says simply because they are an authority figure.

There used to be a non-Buddhist school in India called the Charvakas who said that if something did not appear to the senses, then you could not accept it, but this is disproved by logical reasoning and inferential cognition. For example, if you stir sugar into tea, you can know that the tea is sweet without having to taste it. There are many such inferential realizations that are necessary to make spiritual progress. Gaining inferential realization of karma and rebirth is very, very necessary for spiritual development.

The Charavakas were considered simple-minded because they couldn't accept logical reasoning and were unable to use such reasoning to gain incontrovertible knowledge of hidden objects such as rebirth. It's a very low and unsophisticated philosophical view to say that you can only believe in what you can experience directly.

It seems to me that Stephen Batchelor's view accords with the Charavakas in some respects and his dismissal of karma and rebirth as being the cultural baggage of India at the time is equally as ridiculous when there are countless logical reasonings to prove otherwise.

Ed's picture

I attended six day retreat with Stephen and his wife Martine last fall. Over the course of the week, I was fortunate to have several private interviews with Stephen in which we discussed his beliefs and their evolution. Clearly, Stephen's views fall beyond the "comfort zone" of traditional buddhist teaching. However, he is a very spiritual, dedicated student of the Buddha who simply is unable to gain comfort with the concept of rebirth.

In this regard, Stephen voices a view shared by many Western agnostics who are attracted to Buddhism because of it "godless" nature. The Buddha's reluctance to address the metaphysical is consistent with Stephen' reluctance to accept that which "cannot be known".

During the Q&A at his recent NYC visit, Stephen was asked why he now considers himself an "atheist". His answer was a bit convoluted and not very convincing since he is not so much a "non-believer" as he is a "not-knower". Don't be mislead by the title of his new book which should really be titled the "Confession f a Buddhist Agnostic". By his own admission, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" has a catchier ring to it.

He is a valuable teacher. Please take what is of value to you and leave the rest behind, as the Buddha taught.

Sarah's picture

Alan, I have found a lot of Batchelor's lectures offered for free at They're wonderful. And there are other teachers of great merit there also. Enjoy!

Rebecca's picture

Like Sarah, I am an admirer of Batchelor's assertions about "buddhism without beliefs." Whether the Buddha believed in karma or reincarnation is beside the point for me. Batchelor speaks to the core wisdom of Buddhism for those of us who cannot take on faith the supernatural belief system of many Buddhists. I am grateful to Batchelor and to Tricycle for allowing a forum for his ideas.