on June 21, 2010
"To practice the Dharma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else's idea of what "Buddhism" is or should be." P229
So ends Stephen Batchelor's _Confession of a Buddhist Atheist_, a manuscript-as-collage made up of equal parts autobiography, a reconstruction of the life of the Buddha, and the search for "true" Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha shorn of the ideas of his age (and those that have followed). Holding Batchelor's raft together is his quest for a Buddhist Third Way, a path for an educated laity with leisure time to study and meditate.
Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the book is the story of the Buddha. Typically presented as an enlightened being above the fray of worldly affairs, Batchelor puts the Buddha back into the political and economic milieu of his day. As the son of a highly placed member of the ruling class, it is likely Gotama held some administrative or military post. He may have even attended college at Taxila. Either possibility might explain why he married and fathered late in life; the latter may explain why as soon as he began teaching he seemed to speak in such a confident and unique voice. In either case, the story of the four sights is most likely a later addition (and one that appears in the original cannon only in reference to a previous incarnation of the Buddha).
Following his enlightenment and his decision to teach, the Buddha soon realized he needed more than disciples, especially if he was to create more than just another religion. To make a new way of being and living, to make a new civilization, required protectors and benefactors. He enlisted in quick succession the kings of Magadha and Kosala, as well as a banker to finance the construction of a monastic center. And so began his life work. The whole thing came undone several decades later when the King of Kosala found the wife sent by the Buddha's tribe, the Sakyans, to be of slave blood rather than royal. Batchelor contends that even if the Buddha was not part of the conspiracy, there is no way he could not have known about it. The King's son by the slave girl returned the insult by sending an army to wipe out the Sakyans, leaving the Buddha without a home or relatives. With all of his benefactors having passed away, replaced by younger men eager to expand their empires, the Buddha spent his final years wandering alone with just a few of his remaining students and aides, left to die of food poisoning (perhaps a plot by the Jains) in the dusty hamlet of Kusinara.
Less dramatic than the Buddha's life is that of the author, which in its main themes accords with the experience of many European and North American Buddhists. In search of a dharma for a post-modern age, Batchelor finds himself at loggerheads with orthodoxy, forced to build his own theology out of experience and study. Along the way he discovers some odd things about himself. He reflexively bows to Buddha images and enjoys circumambulating stupas. Many of the aspects of traditional practice he thought superfluous have in fact become essential to his being and to his happiness.
Others are less so, including "belief" in rebirth or karma beyond this life. In doing away with core tenets a bit of tinkering and rethinking is required, for which Batchelor has gone back to the Pali sources to find evidence and justification. As someone from a similar background and of like mind, I appreciate Batchelor's willingness to question his experience, to question his understanding of experience, and to question the traditional interpretations of experience. He is correct in observing that all schools of Buddhism have been selective in their presentations, and that his own is no more objective than any other. But in at least one instance he seems deliberately dishonest, reinterpreting the Buddha's words to create a meaning that is not intended.
He quotes the Mahasihanada Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar) as supporting a kind of "belief-free" Buddhism. The sutta begins with a critic denouncing the Buddha as a teacher who "does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him, and when he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering." To which the Buddha says to his disciple Sariputta, "the misguided man Sunakkhatta is angry, and his words are spoken out of anger. Thinking to discredit the Tathagata [the Buddha], he actually praises him..." Batchelor ends the quote prematurely to draw the conclusion he desires, that a Dhamma hammered out by reason is praiseworthy. The remainder of the Buddha's remark points to something different, that what is of value is the effectiveness of the teaching. "It is a praise of the Tathagata to say of him: 'When he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering.'"
In the same sutta, the Buddha goes on to expound his many supernormal powers and concludes with a warning to all who claim his Dhamma is nothing more than a Dhamma of reason: "Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him' -- unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell."
Clearly the Buddha saw himself as something more than just an ordinary human. He was someone who experienced the equivalent of a revelation, an extraordinary event that conferred superhuman powers of understanding and insight. But as much as he spoke of himself in this way, he did not, as Batchelor observes, discourse on metaphysics - a first cause, a creator, the soul, the eternal - except when such issues were forced, on which occasions he replied as something of an "ironic atheist," poking fun at those who persist in debating the improvable and unknowable.
Perhaps this has encouraged Batchelor to ignore the Buddha's superhuman qualities to see instead something of Iron Age psychologist, a man concerned solely with the suffering of here and now, in which all experience is of equal ontological value. Contrary to Buddhist orthodoxy, Batchelor says the Buddha did not speak of relative and ultimate truth. He did not privilege mind over matter, consciousness over form. He was not just another Indian sage infatuated with Brahma or Atman, which is much of what Buddhism has since become, with its worship of the Undivided, the Ground of Being, or Original Mind.
For Batchelor Buddhism becomes a tool for exploring existential groundlessness, a call for action in the Four Noble Truths: Embrace (suffering), Let Go (of craving), Stop (and experience cessation of craving), and Act (to cultivate the path). While emphasizing the absence of "belief" and reliance on the power of the self, at the same time he recognizes the need to find a way to live "ironically" with dogmas, orthodoxies and institutions, "to appreciate them for what they are - the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning - rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed."
"If 'secular' religion were not considered a contradiction in terms," he concludes, "I would happily endorse such a concept."