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Buddhism without Beliefs: Review

Bhikkhu Bodhi

 Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. By Stephen Batchelor. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. Pp. xii + 127. ISBN 1-57322-058-2, US $21.95.

Reviewed by
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
President, Buddhist Publication Society (Kandy, Sri Lanka)

It has often been said that Western Buddhism is distinguished from its Asian prototype by three innovative shifts: the replacement of the monastery by the lay community as the principal arena of Buddhist practice; the enhanced position of women; and the emergence of a grass-roots engaged Buddhism aimed at social and political transformation. These three developments, however, have been encompassed by a fourth which is so much taken for granted that it is barely noticed. This last innovation might be briefly characterized as an attempt to transplant Buddhist practice from its native soil of faith and doctrine into a new setting governed by largely secular concerns. While for Asian Buddhists, including Eastern masters teaching in the West, this shift is so incomprehensible as to be invisible, for Western Buddhists it seems so obvious that they rarely see a need to comment on it.

Stephen Batchelor, however, has clearly discerned the significance of this development and what it portends for the future. Having been trained in Asia in two monastic lineages (Tibetan Gelugpa and Korean Soen) and relinquished his monk's vows to live as a lay Buddhist teacher in the West, he is acquainted with both traditional Buddhism and its Western offshoots. His book Buddhism Without Beliefs is an intelligent and eloquent attempt to articulate the premises of the emerging secular Buddhism and to define the parameters for a style of "dharma practice" appropriate to the new situation. Batchelor is a highly gifted writer with a special talent for translating abstract explanation into concrete imagery drawn from everyday life. His book is obviously the product of serious reflection and a deep urge to make the Dhamma viable in our present sceptical age. Whether his vision is adequate to that aim is a tantalizing question which I hope to explore in the course of this review.

The book is divided into three parts, each with several short sections. In the first part, entitled "Ground," Batchelor sketches the theoretical framework of his "Buddhism without beliefs." He begins by drawing a sharp distinction between two entities that are so closely intertwined in Buddhist history as to seem inseparable, but which, he holds, must be severed for the Dhamma to discover its contemporary relevance. One is "dharma practice," the Buddha's teaching as a path of training aimed at awakening and freedom from "anguish" (his rendering of dukkha); the other is "Buddhism," a system of beliefs and observances geared towards social stability and religious consolation. For Batchelor, the religious expressions and world view in which the Dhamma has come down to us have no intrinsic connection to the Buddha's teaching at its core. They pertain solely to the Asian cultural soil within which Buddhism took root. While they may have served a purpose in earlier times, in relation to the continued transmission of the Dhamma, they are more a hindrance than a help.

According to Batchelor, if the Dhamma is to offer an effective alternative to mainstream thought and values, it has to be divested of its religious apparel and recast in a purely secular mode. What then emerges is an "agnostic" style of dharma practice aimed at personal and social liberation from the suffering created by egocentric clinging. On the great questions to which religious Buddhism provides answers—the questions concerning our place in the grand scheme of things—Batchelor's agnostic version of the Dhamma takes no stand. In his view, "the dharma is not something to believe in but something to do" (p. 17).

At first glance Batchelor's approach seems to echo the Buddha's advice in his famous simile about the man struck with the poisoned arrow (MN no. 63): "Just practice the path and don't speculate about metaphysical questions." But are the two really pointing in the same direction? I don't think so. Let us first note that Batchelor seems curiously ambivalent about how he conceives his own task relative to the historical Buddha. He starts off as if he has set out to salvage the authentic vision of the Buddha from the cultural accretions that have obscured its pristine clarity; yet, when he runs up against principles taught by the Buddha that collide with his own agenda, he has no hesitation about discarding them. This suggests that more than cultural accretions are at stake.

From the fact that the Buddha kept silent on the metaphysical questions of his day and said that he taught only suffering and its cessation, Batchelor concludes that his teaching should be viewed as "an existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism" (p. 15). A look at the Paali suttas, however, will show us that while the Buddha did not answer the ten "undetermined questions," he made quite explicit pronouncements on the questions that Batchelor would wave aside. In a telling passage, Batchelor states that an agnostic Buddhist would not turn to the dharma for answers to questions about "where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death . . . [but] would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc." (p. 18). From Batchelor's point of view, this would then mean that in answering the above questions, the Buddha was stepping outside his own domain and trespassing on that of science, which is doubly ironic in that responsible scientists usually say either that such questions are unanswerable or that they come within the domain of religion rather than of science.

At one point Batchelor tries to escape this predicament by suggesting that, in speaking of rebirth, the Buddha was merely adopting "the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world" (p. 15). Later he admits that the Buddha "accepted" the ideas of rebirth and kamma, but he still finds it "odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to adopt ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus accept as an article of faith that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of brain function" (p. 37). Batchelor himself cannot endorse these "metaphysical theories." It is not that he actually rejects the idea of rebirth. He claims, rather, that the most honest approach we can take to the whole issue of life after death is simply to acknowledge that we don't know. To accept the doctrines of rebirth and kamma, even on the authority of the Buddha, indicates a "failure to summon forth the courage to risk a nondogmatic and nonevasive stance on such crucial existential matters" (p. 38).

To justify his interpretation of the Dhamma, Batchelor resorts to a variety of arguments that gain their cogency through selective citation, oversimplification, and rationalization. For example, when discussing the "four ennobling truths," Batchelor points out (in accordance with the First Sermon) that these truths are "not propositions to believe [but] challenges to act" (p. 7). This, however, is only partly true, firstly because, in order to act upon the truths, one has to believe them; but even more pointedly, because Batchelor fails to mention that the tasks imposed by the truths acquire their meaning from a specific context, namely, the quest for liberation from the vicious round of rebirths (see MN no. 26; SN chap. 15). To lift the four Noble Truths out of their original context, shared by the Buddha and his auditors, and transpose them to a purely secular one is to alter their meaning in crucial ways, as Batchelor does when he interprets the first truth as "existential anguish." For the Buddha and Buddhist tradition, dukkha really means the suffering of repeated becoming in the round of rebirths, and thus, once one dismisses the idea of rebirth, the Four Truths lose their depth and scope.

The sharp dichotomy that Batchelor posits between "dharma practice" and "religious Buddhism" is also hard to endorse. Rather, we should recognize a spectrum of Buddhist practices, ranging from simple devotional and ethical observances to more advanced contemplative and philosophical ones. What makes them specifically part of the Buddhist Dhamma is that they are all enfolded in a distinctive matrix of faith and understanding, which disappears when "dharma practice" is pursued on the basis of different presuppositions. Batchelor describes the premises that underlie traditional lay Buddhist practice, such as kamma and rebirth, as mere "consolatory elements" that have crept in to the Dhamma and blunted its critical edge (pp. 18–19). But to speak thus is to forget that such principles were repeatedly taught by the Buddha himself, and not always for the sake of consolation, as a glance through the Paali Nikaayas would show.

Even the notion that Buddhist religiosity is defined by a set of beliefs seems to derive its plausibility from viewing Buddhism in terms of a Christian model. Dhamma practice as taught by the Buddha makes no demands for blind faith; the invitation to question and investigate is always extended. One first approaches the Dhamma by testing those teachings of the Buddha that come into range of one's own experience. If one finds that they stand up under scrutiny, one then places faith in the teacher and accepts on trust those points of his teaching that one cannot personally validate. Collectively, all these principles make up Right View (sammaa di.t.thi), the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, and thus to subject them to an insistent agnostic questioning, as Batchelor proposes, is to derail one's practice from the start. In the Buddha's version of the path, one begins with certain beliefs that one uses as guidelines to Right Understanding and Right Practice. Then, when one's practice matures, one goes beyond belief to personal realization based on insight. Once one arrives at the far shore, one can leave behind the entire raft (see MN no. 22), but one doesn't discard the compass before one has even stepped on board.

The middle portion of the book is called "Path" and provides a sketch of Batchelor's agnostic conception of dharma practice. His explanations here are clear and lively, allowing him to display the creative side of his literary gifts. Separate sections deal with mindful awareness, insight into emptiness, and the development of compassion, each introduced by a simple example: the practice of mindfulness, by showing how unmindfully we usually go about such everyday tasks as walking to the store for a carton of milk; emptiness, by the challenge of finding a ballpoint pen amidst its parts; and compassion, by reflection on the suffering common to those we consider our friends, enemies, and mere acquaintances. He also includes a section on the twelve links of dependent origination, which he interprets in an imaginative way, illustrated by the mistaken perception of a garden hose as a snake.

What is notably absent in Batchelor's conception of the path is the traditional foundation for Buddhist practice: the Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. Of course, such an obviously religious act hardly makes sense in the framework of agnostic dharma practice. This omission, however, is quite significant, I think, for a world of difference must separate the practice of the agnostic dharma follower from that of the confirmed Buddhist who has gone for refuge. Batchelor also makes no mention of any code of moral rules, not even the Five Precepts. At several points, in fact, he speaks lightly of the codification of ethics, proposing moral integrity in its place. While his analysis of moral integrity includes some impressive insights, it remains questionable to me whether this alone, without concrete guidelines, is a sufficient basis for ethics.

In the final part, "Fruition," Batchelor explores the consequences of his conception of dharma practice as a "passionate agnosticism." He begins with an account of the meditative path that strikes me as very strange. As mindfulness develops, he explains, the process of meditation evolves into a radical, relentless questioning of every aspect of experience, until we find ourselves immersed in a profound perplexity that envelopes our whole being. For Batchelor, "this perplexed questioning is the central path itself" (p. 98), a path that does not seek any answers nor even a goal. Now for one like myself, nurtured on the Paali texts, this seems a bizarre conception of "dharma practice." Granted, the purpose of meditation is not simply to gain confirmation of one's belief system, but does this justify using the raft of the Dhamma to founder in the treacherous sea of doubt, rather than to cross to the far shore? The Buddha repeatedly emphasized that insight meditation leads to direct knowledge of the true nature of things, a knowledge that pulls up doubt by its roots. This shows once again the bearing of one's starting point on one's destination. If one starts off with the agnostic imperative, one descends ever deeper into mystery and doubt; if one places trust in the Dhamma and accedes to Right View, one's path culminates in Right Knowledge and Right Liberation (see MN no. 117).

In the last sections of the book, on "imagination" and "culture," Batchelor tackles the problem of the encounter between Buddhism and the contemporary world. He points out that throughout its history, the Dhamma has rejuvenated itself by continually altering its forms to respond to changing social and cultural conditions. This creative adjustment was an act of imagination, of creative vision, on the part of gifted Buddhist thinkers, who thereby gave birth to a fresh manifestation of the teaching. Soon afterwards, however, religious orthodoxy stepped in, placed the new forms under its authority, and thereby squelched the creative impulse imparted by the founders. Again, while I cannot deny that orthodoxy and creativity have had an uneasy relationship, I find Batchelor's version of Buddhist history too simplistic, almost as if he were viewing Buddhist orthodoxy as a mirror image of Western faiths. He also fails to provide sufficient acknowledgement of the role of orthodoxy in encouraging Dhamma practice rather than suppressing it, which accounts for its ability to turn out accomplished spiritual masters through the centuries. Orthodoxy and contemplative realization, though often at odds with each other, are by no means necessarily incompatible.

Batchelor argues that the meeting of Buddhism with the contemporary West has given rise to the need to create, from the resources of the dharma, a new "culture of awakening that addresses the specific anguish of the contemporary world" (p. 110). Such a culture must respond to the unprecedented situation we find today, when the promise of spiritual liberation has converged with a universal striving for personal and social freedom. In attempting to create such a culture of awakening, he stresses the need for dharma followers to preserve the integrity of the Buddhist tradition while at the same time fulfilling their responsibility to the present and the future. With this much I am in full agreement and acknowledge that the problem is especially acute for Theravaada Buddhism, which has historically been tied to a very particular cultural environment. Where I differ with him is on the question of what is central to the Dhamma and what is peripheral. In my view, Batchelor is ready to cast away too much that is integral to the Buddha's teaching in order to make it fit in with today's secular climate of thought. I'm afraid that the ultimate outcome of such concessions could be a psychologically oriented humanism tinged with Buddhist philosophy and a meditative mood. I certainly think that Buddhists should freely offer other religions and secular disciplines the full resources of their own tradition—philosophy and ethics, meditation and psychology—with perfect liberty, to use them for their own ends: "The Tathaagata does not have a teacher's closed fist." But we still have to draw a sharp line between what is the Buddha's Dhamma and what is not, and I would say, all such practices undertaken outside the context of Going for Refuge are still on the hither side of the Dhamma, not yet within its fold.

I would also maintain that when the secular presuppositions of modernity clash with the basic principles of Right Understanding stressed by the Buddha, there is no question which of the two must be abandoned. Sa.msaara as the beginningless round of rebirths, kamma as its regulative law, Nibbaana as a transcendent goal—surely these ideas will not get a rousing welcome from sceptical minds. A sense of refuge, renunciation, compassion based on the perception of universal suffering, a striving to break all mental bonds and fetters—surely these values are difficult in an age of easy pleasure. But these are all so fundamental to the true Dhamma, so closely woven into its fabric, that to delete them is to risk nullifying its liberative power. If this means that Buddhism retains its character as a religion, so be it. In this I see nothing to fear; the greater danger is in diluting the teaching so much that its potency is lost. The secularization of life and the widespread decline in moral values have had grave consequences throughout the world, jeopardizing our collective sanity and survival. Today a vast cloud of moral and spiritual confusion hangs over humankind, and Batchelor's agnostic dharma practice seems to me a very weak antidote indeed. In my view, what we require is a clear articulation of the essential principles taught by the Buddhahimself in all their breadth and profundity. The challenge—and it is a difficult one—is to express these principles in a living language that addresses the deep crises of our time.

(Note: In accordance with his own convention I have used "dharma" when quoting or closely paraphrasing Batchelor, and "Dhamma" when making general remarks and to express my own ideas.)

 Bhikkhu Bodhi,
Sri Lanka

Source: Journal of Buddhist Ethics (1998), http://jbe.la.psu.edu/

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