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Buddhism Without Beliefs critiqued

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo


Stephen Batchelor's book, "Buddhism Without Beliefs" has attracted a lot of attention in Buddhist circles. In many respects, this is an important book. It may be seen as a lucid manifesto of a tendency in modern, western Buddhism that has been gaining ground in recent years. This is the kernel of a new school of modernized, rationalized Buddhism; in essence a Protestant Buddhism. While this tendency is seen as a welcome one by many, it is worth examining more closely to understand just what is being put forward.

The book, and the whole trend of "new Buddhism" that it represents is inspired by the confrontation of the Dharma with the dynamic cultural heritage of the West. Buddhism arose in the very different cultural milieu of pre-modern Asia and now it is establishing itself in the western world there are inevitable tensions between the elements of the two different world-views. It is a valid, and an important, undertaking for modern western Buddhists to attempt to resolve these tensions and make the Dharma a living tradition here in the West. This is what Mr. Batchelor attempts to do.

Mr. Batchelor is enthusiastic about many aspects of the western tradition and words like democratic, secular, agnostic and scientific occur often, with an unexamined positive valuation. These are contrasted to the perceived negative values of what he terms "religious Buddhism", that is the Buddhism as understood and practiced by all Buddhists prior to the last few decades. The author is very definitely a product of the Enlightenment (in the historic, not the mystical sense), the Protestant Reformation and the democratic and scientific revolutions. It is significant for understanding his thesis that he takes this complex of values as primary; indeed, in every case where there is a perceived conflict between the Buddhist teachings and these western values, it is the Buddhist teachings which must be modified or abandoned to force a reconciliation.

Of this complex of values, the chief thrust of the book is on that of agnostic skepticism. In particular, it is karma and rebirth that we are urged to be skeptical about. Mr. Batchelor argues, in fact, that this outlook is entirely in accord with the spirit of the Dharma.

Central to his argument is the text of the Kalama Sutta, which he twice quotes as a chapter opening. This is a well known Sutta that the Buddha delivered to a group of laymen who were doubtful as to what teachings to believe when so many philosophers taught contradictory theories. This is often used as a basis for validating a skeptical approach to the Dharma.

It is worth considering what this text actually does say about accepting and rejecting teachings. The Buddha lists a number of invalid reasons for accepting a view. These include being misled by hearsay or tradition or by proficiency in the scriptures, but also, please note, by logic and inference. The Buddha then gives some valid reasons for accepting a teaching; these are that the teaching when put into practice conduces to one's well-being and happiness and, significantly, that the teaching is one "praised by the wise." Further, when one finds such a teaching, then one should "undertake and abide in it." This is hardly a recommendation for a persistent agnosticism, nor is it a blanket condemnation of authority.

Another thrust of Mr. Batchelor's argument seems to be that he sees himself as reducing Buddhism to the essential teachings of the Four Noble Truths and cutting out dogmatic accretions unnecessary for salvation. But when we examine his specific criticism of the traditional teachings, this appears rather hollow. Consider his chapter on the Four Noble Truths. He quite rightly emphasizes how each of the Four has an associated method of approach; we are charged by the Buddha to understand suffering, abandon craving, realize cessation and cultivate the path. However, he goes on to make the rather surprising claim that this teaching has been all but forgotten "relegated to the margins of specialist doctrinal knowledge." This claim is made, it seems to bolster an argument that "religious Buddhism" has turned the Four Truths in a static set of "propositions to be believed." This critique applies more to superficial popular accounts that to the full-bodied traditional teaching; these four tasks have not been forgotten. It seems that here Mr. Batchelor is setting up a straw man to attack. Much of his critique of "religious Buddhism" seems to be directed against this caricature of his own devising and not against real living traditions.

In regard to his criticism of the rebirth idea, while admitting that the Buddha himself was not agnostic on this issue (p.35,) Mr. Batchelor maintains that he was "still constrained by the world view of his time." (p.94) There are fundamental assumptions being made here that cannot be shared by most traditional Buddhists. One is the implied trivialization of the Buddha's enlightenment. Another is that the modern materialist world view is superior to the metaphysical understanding of ancient India.

While these objections may have no force for agnostic modernizing Buddhists, they should still address the question as to why the Buddha was able to challenge many other crucial aspects of the prevailing paradigm such as the existence of an atman or the acceptability of the caste system. It is simply not good enough to say that the Buddha accepted rebirth because it was the prevailing view; he demonstrated profound abilities to forge new directions with his teaching and would not have accepted something so crucial unreflectively.

A central aspect to "Buddhism Without Beliefs" is the promotion of agnosticism as a cardinal Buddhist virtue. Mr. Batchelor is careful to distinguish this from what he calls skepticism and defines it as an honest admission that one doesn't know. This position, so defined, has a certain integrity to it but how compatible is it with the Buddha's own teachings? While it is true that the Buddha exhorted us not to cling to any views, including those of his teaching, and to investigate reality for ourselves, these directives are not by any means the whole of his teaching and should be taken in context with that whole. It is a mistake to take one aspect of the Dharma and ignore the rest; this provides a one-sided understanding.

One aspect that Mr. Batchelor ignores is the importance that the Buddha placed on Right View. In Anguttara XVII the Buddha says that he knows of no other thing so conducive to the arising of wholesome states as Right View. In one of the frequently occurring formulas of Right View, as for example in Majjhima 41, the Buddha defines it as, among other things, a belief in karma and in "this world and the other world." Furthermore, there is much discussion in the suttas of Wrong View, one variety of which is precisely that of the materialists. "Since this self is material, made up of the four great elements, the product of mother and father, at the breaking up of the body it is annihilated and perishes, and does not exist after death." (Digha 1)

As an aside, it should be pointed out that advocates of a materialist Buddhism often claim that their view is different from this ancient annihilationism because it doesn't postulate a self. While it would take us too far afield to examine this argument in detail, suffice it to say that from a traditional Buddhist understanding, any doctrine of materialism must have an implied self-view. In other words, it is incompatible with a true understanding of not-self. This is because of, firstly, an identification with the single aggregate of bodily form and secondly, because of the belief in annihilation of consciousness at death which presupposes an existent entity to be annihilated (even if this is not articulated.)

Another way in which an agnostic Buddhism violates fundamental teachings is the imbalance in the development of the faculties. One of the five spiritual faculties is saddha, translated as faith or confidence. This must be balanced with its complement and opposite number, panna or discriminative wisdom. Too much faith without any wisdom is superstition, too much discrimination without faith leads to cunning ( "a disease as hard to cure as one caused by medicine.") That is, when we set our own reason upon a pedestal and denigrate the enlightenment of the Buddha with our skepticism, we can create our own false Dharma in service to the desires.

This approach is unwelcome to the rationalizing modernist trend of agnostic Buddhism. But it is one that was taught by the Buddha and has served millions of devout Buddhists well for twenty-five centuries.

As noted previously, karma and rebirth are among the elements of Buddhism that Mr. Batchelor questions. He regards these as not crucial to the core teaching.

And yet we have seen that an acceptance of karma is central to the very definition of Right View. Mr. Batchelor rightly states that karma is intention but he is wrong to draw from this the implied conclusion that it has nothing to do with results in the world or in states of rebirth. The Buddha most often spoke about ethics entirely in terms of rebirth. Doing such and such a wholesome action will result in "a happy rebirth, a good destination, even unto heaven." Doing such and such an unwholesome action will lead to " an unhappy rebirth, a bad destination, even unto hell."

Mr. Batchelor says "ethical integrity is rooted in the sense of who we are and what kind of reality we inhabit." (p.45) This is true, and it is one reason the Buddha emphasized a belief in karma and rebirth, that is to say that ethical actions have results. And as a vital corollary, that death is not an ending to these results.

On a deeper level, a world-view informed by the reality of the terrible wheel of sangsara is absolutely central to a profound approach to practice. This has been the existential basis upon which all schools of Buddhism have been built. The work needed to realize the Dharma in its depths is not trivial. If one bases her view on materialist assumptions of annihilation after death, where is the motivation to wrestle with the profoundest issues? If all alike are annihilated, what possible difference could Dharma practice make?

It is most telling that Mr. Batchelor sees a belief in rebirth as a "consolation." He recognizes the incongruity of this by calling it a "curious twist that westerners find [it so]" (p35) Nevertheless he claims that "an agnostic Buddhist looks to the Dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than consolation." (p.18)

It is only a very superficial understanding of rebirth that finds any consolation therein. It is not an escapist fantasy, but an understanding that confronts the terrible realities of birth, old-age, sickness and death head on. Anyone who has contemplated these ideas in depth begins to have a detachment from the world of sensuality and form, How can that which is repeated endlessly and always ends in the same sorry way have any appeal?

It is more likely the fantasy of annihilation that is the consolation. One can pretend to be brave and accept extinction but thereby escape all the awful consequences of karma (or so one may imagine.) The picture is not as simple or as one-sided as "Buddhism Without Beliefs" would have us believe.

While it is to be seriously questioned whether agnosticism (in Mr. Batchelor's sense) is really what the Buddha taught, there is another and more profound problem with this book. It seems upon a close reading that Mr. Batchelor is not quite so free of beliefs as he would let on. However these are the beliefs of modernism and not of Buddhism.

Whereas he would have us belief that he is taking the position of "I don't know" he betrays a decided bias at every turn for materialism. Often this is slipped in almost unawares. a very good example is the description of the Buddha's decision to teach the Dharma after his enlightenment. "What decided [the Buddha] was the appearance of an idea (in the language of ancient India, a 'god' " (p 106) Wouldn't a truly agnostic position at least entertain the possibility of a real manifestation of a real entity rather than jump to such an unwarranted conclusion? This conclusion can only come from an inherent faith in the metaphysics of the modern west.

Telling as this example is, it is not central to the argument. However on page 37 we have "All this has nothing to do with the compatibility (or otherwise) of Buddhism and modern science. It is odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to accept ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus accept as an article of faith that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of brain function."

Odder indeed to many traditional Buddhists is the article of faith of modernists that it can be. Let's be clear about this. Consciousness has not at all been explained "in terms of brain function" by modern science or by anyone else. It is entirely a metaphysical assumption that it ever can be, an act of faith of the most credulous sort that Mr. Batchelor should be the first to denounce. There is not a shred of a proof of this claim anywhere, only a pious belief in some quarters that such a proof will shortly be forthcoming.

Even odder is that when there is a conflict between two metaphysical assumptions, a Buddhist writer should be so ready to give the benefit of the doubt to the unbuddhist one.

What is most unfortunate about the materialist view as a basis for Dharma practice is that it precludes any possibility of enlightenment. We can see in "Buddhism Without Beliefs" that Mr. Batchelor has redefined the concept (he prefers the term "awakening") in the direction of making it into something mundane and ordinary. We have already commented on his assertion that the Buddha had not transcended even the constraints of popular thought. In his chapter on "Awakening" Mr. Batchelor goes on to say "The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge about how the universe works." (p.5)

If we disregard the unnecessary reference to God, the rest of this is a denial of what traditionally and scripturally the Buddha's enlightenment means. Consider the Buddha's knowledges of past lives, attained on the enlightenment night. Consider the Buddha's epithet as "Knower of the Worlds" (plural.) Consider the suttas in which the Buddha reveals special knowledge of times past and future.

Specific reference can be made to the Mahasihanada Sutta, (Majjhima 12) in which the Buddha declares his own powers. These include, amongst others, "the Tathagata understands as it actually is the results of actions undertaken, past, future and present with possibilities and with causes...the Tathagata understands as it is the world with its many and different elements...the Tathagata recollects his manifold past lives..." Most damaging to the assertions of Mr. Batchelor is, perhaps, "I see no ground on which...anyone...could in accordance with Dhamma, accuse me thus: 'While you claim full enllightenment, you are not enlightened in regard to certain things.' "

Mr. Batchelor has simply redefined the enlightenment to be something else than the Buddha claimed it to be, and generations of Buddhists have understood it as. Of course it is necessary to dismiss supernormal attainments if one is to preserve the concept of materialism intact.

A little later Mr. Batchelor informs us that "access to the process of awakening was relatively straightforward and did not entail any great fuss." (p.12) This is certainly not the way it is described in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta describing the Buddha's first discourse. (A source which Mr. Batchelor draws on for his chapter on the Four Truths.) When the elder Kondanna achieved stream-entry the devas of all classes set up a paean of rejoicing and a great light enveloped the cosmos. Even if one wants to rationalize this away as a "metaphor" it certainly indicates that the compilers of the canon perceived something of very great, indeed of cosmic, importance, worthy of "fuss", had occurred. The trivialization of enlightenment is entirely a modernist invention.

Part and parcel with this revaluation of enlightenment downwards is a denial of Nirvana (Nibbana ). "Religious interpretations invariably reduce complexity to uniformity." (How so? Isn't materialism the ultimate reductionism?) "Over time, increasing emphasis has been placed on a single Absolute Truth, such as "the Deathless', 'the Unconditioned,' 'the Void,' 'Nirvana,' 'Buddha Nature etc.,," (p.4)

So says Mr. Batchelor. Compare the words of the Buddha (from Samyutta 43 - Ven. Thanissaro's translation)

"The unfashioned, the end, the effluent-less, the true, the beyond, the subtle, the very-hard-to-see, the ageless, permanence, the undecaying, the featureless, the undifferentiated, peace, the deathless, the exquisite, bliss, solace, the exhaustion of craving, the wonderful, the marvelous, the secure, security, Nibbana, the unafflicted, the passionless, the pure, release, non-attachment, the island, shelter, harbour, refuge, the ultimate."

It is very sad that many are loosing the prospect of this promise of the Buddha in exchange for such paltry fare.

It has already been remarked how Mr. Batchelor seems to consistently favour the western tradition over the Buddhist. He tells us that "an agnostic Buddhist would not regard the Dharma as a source of answers to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience etc." (p.18) What could any of these disciplines tell us about what happens after death? It is astonishing that a Buddhist writer can so readily dismiss the ancient wisdom tradition and so decisively claim the superiority of modern materialist philosophy.

It is clear too that Mr. Batchelor's biases have been shaped by the Protestant Reformation, in that he seems unable, despite his own experience as a Vajrayana monk, to appreciate the true social and spiritual import of monasticism. (see pp.52-53) Instead, he proposes new models of organization based on democratic and secular principles. Models which would encourage "individuation and imagination." While it is unclear what he means by imagination (one hopes not mental proliferation and yet more fanciful re-interpretations) the goal of individuation is an even more problematic one from a Buddhist perspective. Doesn't this necessitate an affirmation and validation of the self-concept?

It is disappointing to say the least that in a book which purports to meet the challenge of interpreting the Dharma for the modern west, the meeting of the two streams is so one-sidedly against the Dharma. Where is the critique of the western tradition? Undoubtedly much of value has been accomplished within that tradition but it has also been intrinsically bound up with such evils as colonialism, destruction of the natural environment and widespread spiritual malaise.

It is precisely the ancient wisdom of Buddhism that is missing form the western world. The sense of a meaning in life, the intrinsic value of human and other beings, the possibility of spiritual transcendence and the knowledge of that which is beyond the suffering, samsaric conditioned world accessible to science. It is tragically these very elements in the teachings that Mr. Batchelor's approach would discard.

The teachings of the Buddha are very old. This means to radicals and modernists that they are out-moded. To the traditionalist it means that they are tried and true. Millions upon millions of beings throughout history have practiced and benefited from the full form of the Dharma, taught complete with rebirth and transcendence and a non-physical mind. Many have benefited to the ultimate level of liberation. What is this arrogant pride of modern times that makes us think we are so much wiser?

These teachings are very precious. Precious in their entirety, in the letter and the meaning. They have been cherished and handed on to us intact from our teachers going back to the Buddha. Can we possibly justify hacking and tearing at a living tradition to make it fit a cheap suit of modernist cloth?

There is an urgent need to interpret and present these teachings to the modern west. This "Buddhism Without Beliefs" has sorely failed to do. The prescription of this book amounts to an abandonment of the traditional Dharma and the transformation of Buddhism into a psychotherapy, which like all psychotherapies, has no goal higher than "ordinary misery." This is a Buddhism without fruition, without a Third Noble Truth.

Should such teachings prevail then they will still validate the tradition in a backhanded way; because they will fulfill the prophecies of the degeneration of the Dharma in this age of decline.

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo,

Source:  Arrow River Community Center , http://www.baynet.net/~arcc/

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