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Secular Buddhism?

David R. Loy

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Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
Stephen Batchelor
New York: Spiegel & Grau
2010, 320 pp., $26.00, cloth

What do Buddhist teachings about impermanence and conditionality imply for Buddhism itself? As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, its encounters with different cultures led to radical transformations. In China, for example, the interaction between Mahayana and established cultural forms, especially Daoism, produced Chan (Zen). So what is happening to Buddhism now, as it makes its greatest transition ever and begins to interact with a (post)modern West where God’s existence is widely doubted, secular values reign, and science has become extraordinarily successful at describing how the world works? How can modern Buddhism build on the best of Western knowledge and values while remaining Buddhist?

The challenge, of course, is distinguishing the essential dharma from other dimensions of Asian culture that may no longer be relevant. The temptation is to identify with one side against the other: to accept, for example, a traditional Tibetan worldview wholesale or to reject anything that is not consistent with modern secularism and materialism. Is there a third alternative, which does not foreclose a real dialogue between them?

Stephen Batchelor has become an influential figure in the movement to delineate a rational and empirical approach to Buddhism. He has developed this vision in Alone with Others, The Faith to Doubt, Buddhism Without Beliefs, and now Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which makes the case for a secular Buddhism less preoccupied with “gaining proficiency in meditation and acquiring ‘spiritual’ attainments” and more concerned with living “in this world in a way that allows every aspect of one’s existence to flourish: seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, working, etc.” I appreciate the emphasis on this-worldly flourishing but was a little surprised by the distinction: don’t meditative practice and awakening, at their best, enable such a flourishing?

The title is revealing, especially in combination with an enthusiastic back-cover blurb by Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It suggests that this book is a Buddhist contribution to the controversial “New Atheism” movement. Batchelor eventually distinguishes between antitheism and his own nontheism, but words cannot simply mean whatever we want them to: “atheism” as used in the West has a history that focuses on denying (usually Christian) theism. This is a debate that does not apply to Buddhism, which uses different types of concepts (anatta, shunyata, etc.) and involves quite different ways of thinking.

Although the title has been a red flag to some unsympathetic reviewers, I found Confession of a Buddhist Atheist enjoyable to read as well as provocative to think about. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part historical inquiry, it is most of all a frank and personable account of an existential and spiritual quest. The prose is fluent, precise, and elegant—which is not to say that I was convinced by Batchelor’s well-argued perspective on Buddhism.

The narrative effectively begins with the 19-year-old Batchelor deciding to leave Britain after failing to get into a polytechnic to study photography. He eventually arrived in Dharamsala, India, where he began practicing in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Batchelor ordained as a monk in 1974, and later he followed his teacher Geshe Rabten Rinpoche to Switzerland, where he lived for five years. Dissatisfied with the Tibetan tradition, Batchelor decided to try Zen training in a South Korean monastery under master Kusan Sunim. There he met a French nun named Songil (now Martine Batchelor), who became his wife when, after the death of Kusan Sunim, they defrocked and left South Korea. They moved to the Sharpham North Community in Totnes, England, where Stephen helped to establish a college for Buddhist studies and began to teach at Gaia House. They are now based in southwest France and travel around the world offering lectures, workshops, and meditation retreats.

The first part of the book recounts Batchelor’s struggles to reconcile commitment to the dharma with his growing skepticism regarding the more baroque aspects of Tibetan Buddhism—for example, his early initiation into the mandala of Yamantaka, which involved visualizing himself as a bull-headed deity with nine faces, thirty-four arms, and sixteen legs. He speaks appreciatively of a ten-day Vipassana meditation course with S. N. Goenka, but he did not follow up formally on that window into Theravada Buddhist practice. His appreciation and sincere devotion to his teachers, especially Geshe Dhargyey, Geshe Rabten, and later Kusan Sunim, is endearing.

The lamas Batchelor studied with could not respond to his concerns, but one senses that the intellectual Gelugpa curriculum influenced him more than he realized, since later chapters reveal that his approach to Buddhism remains primarily cognitive and rational. His view seems to be that although there is a role for meditation, the Buddhadharma we need today must fit with what Western modernity already knows about the world, not challenge it. It seems ironic that someone so concerned with adapting Buddhism to the West did all his formal training with traditional Asian teachers who apparently knew very little, if anything, about the West. At the same time that Batchelor was struggling with Asian forms, many Buddhist communities were becoming established in the West, where teachers and students were working hard to reconcile Buddhism and Western culture, usually without the extreme cognitive dissonance that was so disturbing for Batchelor.

Batchelor’s increasing discomfort with Tibetan Buddhism was reinforced by his discovery of existentialism, especially Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, and even a memorable lecture by the French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas. He emphasizes the impact of reading Heidegger’s Being and Time, which outlined a new phenomenological approach that escapes the usual dualism between mind and body—a dualism that infects most religious traditions (including much of Buddhism) since it fits so well with “transcendentalist” ambitions to escape this world of suffering. Batchelor does not discuss what, from a Buddhist perspective, is most striking about modern Western philosophy, including existentialism: its lack of contemplative practices as alternative modes of inquiry supplementing its conceptual speculations. In contrast, Buddhism includes the world’s largest collection of meditative techniques, which are usually considered necessary to “wake up” and realize the truth of the dharma.

According to the traditional legends, Gotama’s spiritual quest was inspired by the realization that he, like everyone else, was fated to grow old, become ill, and die. Much of the attraction of existentialism is its similar emphasis on our mortality, in contrast to almost all religions (including some forms of Buddhism) that offer postmortem survival. Like many existentialists, Batchelor finds such death-denial inauthentic because it tends to devalue this life (in samsara) as the means to a higher goal (“better” rebirth and eventually nirvana). Buddhism generally agrees that instead of repressing our inevitable death, confronting it can transform the way we live. But what does that confrontation involve, and how does it change us? This is where Batchelor’s modernized Buddhism diverges sharply from traditional accounts of the Buddha and his awakening. Batchelor is quite critical of the doctrine of rebirth and wonders whether the Buddha himself ever taught it, since it supposedly goes against the empirical thrust of his teachings. Yet I am unaware of any serious historical scholarship that doubts that Shakyamuni taught physical rebirth, and nirvana as the release from such rebirth. Many accounts in the Pali canon explain his enlightenment as the achievement of a “threefold knowledge” that included recollecting his past lives and understanding how karma works.

One path to personal transformation is the Great Doubt emphasized in some types of Zen practice. Batchelor quotes an aphorism often repeated by his Korean teacher: “When there is great doubt, then there is great awakening.” One cultivates that doubt until it “coagulates” into a mass of perplexity. And what does that cultivation lead to? Batchelor emphasizes the importance of not-knowing: “To say ‘I don’t know’ is not an admission of weakness or ignorance, but an act of truthfulness: an honest acceptance of the limits of the human condition when faced with ‘the great matter of birth and death’… the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty.”

“Not-knowing” has a special meaning in Zen, but the bewilderment Batchelor embraces should not be confused with the awakening that occurs as a result of persistent Zen practice, when the mass of great doubt dissolves into a realization that clarifies one’s true “not-knowing” nature. He acknowledges that he had “no shattering insights or breakthroughs for which Zen is known. By the time I went to Korea, I had little interest in such things. I was more concerned with refining my sense of the sheer mysteriousness of life so that it infused each moment of my waking existence, thereby serving as a ground from which to respond more openly and vitally to whatever occurred.” He is suspicious of such breakthroughs because as traditionally described they seem to refer to the sort of disembodied Mind he cannot believe in.

This points to one of the intriguing aspects of Batchelor’s approach to practice. A spiritual tradition involves a story about what the world is and how one is transformed. For the practice to work, one must identify with that story to the extent of being motivated by it; one acts as if the story is true. That’s faith. But Batchelor always seems to be outside of his story. When he’s doing Vajrayana, he’s more attracted to Vipassana; when he’s doing Zen, he’s an existentialist; in general, when he’s doing Buddhism he still identifies with his Western and secular perspective. He is always a step removed from what he’s actually doing. I appreciate this outsider, contrarian status, which gives him a unique viewpoint, but it also raises questions about how thoroughly he was able to immerse himself in his Buddhist practice.

Early in the book Batchelor writes approvingly of the seventh-century Mahayana philosopher Dharmakirti, whose “philosophy gave me an excellent conceptual framework for interpreting my practice of mindfulness as well as the other experiences I had had in Dharamsala.” In contrast, for Batchelor emptiness of inherent existence—shunyata—is “just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction…. The aim of meditation for Dharmakirti [or at least for Batchelor] was not to gain mystical insight into emptiness, but to arrive at an unfiltered experience of the fluctuating, contingent, and suffering world.”

Although Batchelor denies neither anatta nor shunyata, the explanations he offers (with reference to his own experiences) are pale versions of two of the most basic Buddhist concepts, which are crucial for understanding the personal transformation that is the aim of Buddhist practice. Any Buddhism that minimizes their importance is open to the charge of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Various Buddhist traditions account for our transformation in somewhat different ways, but all would agree that meditation involves dis-identifying with the habitual thought-patterns that compose our sense of self, and awakening occurs when one “lets go” of oneself. As Dogen put it, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget oneself is to realize one’s nonduality with the world: “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”

In this way, realizing anatta/shunyata becomes the key to resolving Batchelor’s intellectual difficulties with karma, rebirth, and a disembodied Mind: I cannot die insofar as “I” was never born. If the sense of self is (in contemporary terms) a construct, the challenge is awakening to the “empty ground” of that construct. Batchelor might take issue with such an “empty ground,” but that would involve challenging what many teachers—those responsible for transmitting the Buddhadharma— consider to be the core of the tradition.

The second half of the book is largely devoted to recovering the original character and dharma of the Buddha, which Batchelor believes later followers have misrepresented and distorted. This involves a trawl through the Pali canon, with some interesting if speculative results. Batchelor views the Buddha as a more cosmopolitan and worldly-wise figure than usually presented, and conjectures that he may have spent time being educated in Taxila, the intellectual center of his day.

We also learn a great deal about the Buddha’s relations with King Pasenadi and other powerful political figures. These stories are presented as rediscovered history, but his retelling of them sometimes reads more like a Bollywood film script, which suggests the problem with attempts to separate historical fact from myth in a premodern culture that would not understand our modernist concern with literal truth.

Batchelor is most concerned to distinguish what was unique about the Buddha’s teachings, in contrast to his Brahmanical cultural matrix, which emphasized brahman and the karmic reincarnation of the atman (soul). He discovers four core elements that he believes were not derived from the Indian culture of the Buddha’s time: the principle of conditional arising, the process of the four noble truths, the practice of mindful awareness, and the power of self-reliance. These allow him to understand Gotama as secular. “If ‘secular religion’ were not a contradiction in terms, I would happily endorse such a concept.” For Batchelor, as for New Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins, secularism seems to be an unproblematic concept. It’s simply what the world really is: what we experience when we let go of religious superstitions and accept what science has discovered.

The problem with this is that, as Buddhism itself implies, our present understanding of the secular is also historically conditioned. Curiously, it can be traced back to new religious ways of thinking that developed during the Protestant Reformation. By eliminating priests, sacraments, pilgrimages, and so forth, Luther’s focus on “salvation by faith alone” sharply separated this world from any transcendent dimension (God, heaven). Originally this devalued secular reality was understood only as a place to prepare for our eternal destiny with God. Over time, however, preoccupation with that “higher” goal of life has faded away, leaving us stuck in a desacralized world whose materialist nature is now fully explained by physics, chemistry, and biology.

Most versions of Buddhism, including Shakyamuni’s teachings as presented in the Pali canon, understand the spiritual goal as release from samsara—the round of death and continual rebirth into this world of suffering and craving—into a realm beyond samsara, namely, nirvana. No modern scholar questions that this was the goal of the path as articulated in the earliest texts, which remains the main problem for any attempt to derive a more secular and empiricist Buddha from those same texts.

One might see some support for Batchelor’s position in later Mahayana emphasis on the nonduality of samsara and nirvana. According to Nagarjuna, the bounds [koti] of samsara are not other than the bounds of nirvana, in which case the goal of the Buddhist path is simply to realize the true nature of this world, “beyond deluded thoughts” yet nonetheless right here and now. But there is still an all-important epistemological distinction between the way deluded beings experience this world and the way an awakened person does.

So perhaps we do not need to choose between a transcendental release from samsara or the secular world as generally understood today. Contemplative practices open us up to different ways of experiencing the relationship between ourselves and the world. The challenge today is to bring those alternative modes into conversation with Western modernity.

Almost every religious reformer tries to return to the original teachings of the founder, only to end up projecting his or her own understanding back onto those origins. Batchelor’s Buddha too seems too modern: humanistic and agnostic, skeptical and empirical—by no coincidence, a superior version of us, or at least of Stephen Batchelor. Instead of constructing the Buddha one wants by trying to extract him from his cultural context, I think we should accept that even Shakyamuni Buddha was largely and inevitably a product of his time (just as conditional arising implies), and undertake the more difficult project of determining for ourselves what aspects of his teaching remain valid for us today.

I have emphasized the problems with Batchelor’s approach as my way of appreciating this important book, because the issues it raises so sharply are so crucial for the future of Buddhism. I commend his courage in continuing to face them frankly, in ways that open him up to criticism, when the temptation for many of us is to tiptoe around them. The dialogue between Buddhism and modernity is still in its early stages, and we will need many more such books before our globalizing civilization will be able to distinguish clearly between genuine transformative possibilities and myths no longer relevant to our situation.

David R. Loy is the author of Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. His new book, The World Is Made of Stories, will be published in September.

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tfindlay's picture

As you point out Stephen Batchelor attempts in Confessions of an Buddhist Athiest to put a more secular spin on the Buddha and his teachings. While I applaud his courage in challenging the orthodoxy surrounding Buddha, the person, I think this is a mistake. The Buddha, like anyone else, was a product of his times. He lived 2500 years ago in a predominantly Hindu culture. He was necessarily unaware of the function of the brain as was everyone else at that time. Consequently his thinking was limited by this ignorance of brain function just as it was colored by his cultural surroundings and traditions. He seems to have believed (in spite of Batchelor's insistence to the contrary) in reincarnation and trans-generational karma. He seems, also, to have subscribed to the notion of a non-physical mind that was prevalent in his times. In spite of these impediments the Buddha managed to arrive at some penetrating insights into the human condition. For me the future of Buddhism lies not in attempting to redress the Buddha in secular clothes but in acknowledging his questionable assumptions (reincarnation, karma, mind) while, at the same time, recognizing his considerable contributions to the understanding of human suffering.