Stephen Batchelor’s “After Buddism”: A Review

| October 1, 2015 | 7 Comments

SunBuddha_thumbStephen Batchelor, the controversial author and Buddhist teacher, has a new book just out this month from Yale University Press: After Buddhism, Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age.  Mr. Batchelor, an advocate of a secular Buddhism, is probably best known for his books Buddhism Without Beliefs and most recently, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. It was 2010 when this last book was published; what can we expect to find in his new work?

What I seek to provide in this book is a philosophical, ethical, historical, and cultural framework for mindfulness and other such practices, which are rooted in the earliest canonical sources but articulated here afresh (5).

It is his fresh articulation of the dharma that will either challenge or intrigue readers.  Mr. Batchelor is seen by some Buddhists to be a heretic, with some not even considering him a Buddhist. Other critics respect his work, but think him misguided, and yet many value him as an inspired teacher and a visionary.

The book has another of his mildly provocative titles.  What is he getting at with this “After Buddhism?”  “Buddhism” is a relatively modern Western term that refers to the variety of cultures that have developed around the study and practice of the teachings attributed to the fifth century BCE Indian sage named Siddhartha Gotama.  It is these various cultures that Mr. Batchelor wishes to move beyond, not because he judges them wrong, but because he feels they do not speak to him as a child of modernity.  What he hopes for is that what he calls “a culture of awakening” can find the energy to develop.  He makes clear in his preface that it is not the Buddha-dharma (the study and practice of the teachings) that is to be moved beyond:

This book is an attempt to synthesize an understanding of Buddhism . . . [with] a steady focus on a single question: What does it mean to practice the dharma of the Buddha in the context of modernity(ix)?

That question has as many answers as there are Buddhist scholars and teachers and any answer depends on interpretations of “to practice the dharma” and “the context of modernity.”  Many conventional interpretations will be challenged as we discover whether the answer the author provides for us is compelling or not.

One initial challenge is, that despite being an avowed atheist, Mr. Batchelor views the practice of the dharma as a religious practice, while at the same time being secular in nature.  Some find this idea of a “secular religion” contradictory.  The author acknowledges the difficulty with the terms and explains:

One can be religious in the sense of being motivated by ultimate concerns, without ever engaging in any overtly religious behavior, just as one can be religious in the conventional sense merely out of habit or custom, without being driven by an ultimate concern(15).

A secular approach to Buddhism is thus concerned with how the dharma can enable humans and other living beings to flourish in this biosphere, not in a hypothetical afterlife. Rather than emphasizing personal enlightenment and liberation, it is grounded in a deeply felt concern and compassion for the suffering of all those with whom we share this earth(16).

My concern, therefore, is as much about imagining a Buddhist secularity as about imagining a secular Buddhism(20).

Then there are his deconstructions of different “classical” interpretations of the dharma.  Foremost among these might be his refusal to view the dharma as a set of metaphysical truth claims to be believed.  He views the Buddha’s teaching as task oriented, a series of tasks to be accomplished. Thus the “Four Noble Truths” become a “fourfold task.”  The “Unconditioned” becomes the work of “being unconditioned by” greed, anger, and ignorance.

The book’s eleven chapters are quite long with six to nine sub-chapters in each, and, similar to the structure of his previous book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, this book also alternates chapters between two threads of narrative: interpretation of the dharma and historical context.

Chapter 1 is background to the author’s development and orientation as a student and teacher of the dharma. He describes his developed approach to the early teachings as follows:

[giving] central importance to those teachings in Gotama’s dharma that cannot be derived from the worldview of fifth century BCE India (26).

[which] leaves us with four central ideas that do not appear to have direct precedents in Indian tradition. I call them the “four P’s”:

the principle of conditionality

the practice of a fourfold task

the perspective of mindful awareness

the power of self-reliance(27).

The next five chapters are an attempt at a codification of Mr. Batchelor’s interpretations of teachings from the early texts that have evolved over his many years of study and practice.  Here he fleshes out those teachings he considers foundational to a secular approach to the dharma and along the way deconstructs some of the long standing interpretations he finds contrary to such an approach.

Chapter 3, “A Fourfold Task” is then his interpretation of the Buddha’s first teaching, The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.  Chapter 5 is “Letting Go of Truth” and deconstructs the notions of Truth with a capital T and the Unconditioned with a capital U, and reasons how they came to be incorporated into the teachings.  Chapter 7 is “Experience” and explores the Buddha’s pragmatic approach to dealing with our phenomenological experience and his avoidance of metaphysical issues.  Chapter 9 is “The Everyday Sublime” which looks at how the mystical does not transcend our everyday experience, but is imbedded in that very experience, and how the practice of mindfulness and meditation relate to that experience.  Chapter 11 is “A Culture of Awakening” where the ideas of past lives karma and rebirth are also deconstructed and which then provides an outline of what a secular Buddha, Dharma, Sangha might look like, ending with a list of the Ten Theses of Secular Dharma.

The other narrative further develops the historical context of the Buddha’s time and place that Mr. Batchelor started in his previous “Confession” book.

Focusing on the dramatic episodes scattered through the canon that recount Gotama’s often-fraught dealings with his contemporaries allows his humanity to emerge with more clarity than if we concentrate on abstractions(28).

Chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, contain the Buddha”s interaction with five of those contemporaries, they are Mahanama, the Buddha’s cousin who becomes the leader of their Sakiya clan, Pasenadi, the king of Kosala, Sunakhatta, a monk who rejects the Buddha and his teaching and disrobes, Jivaka, a court physician, and Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant.  Interestingly, Mahanama, Pasenadi, and Jivika were adherents (lay practitioners) rather than mendicants (monks) like Ananda and Sunakhatta.

When trying to reconstruct historical events and their context from the fifth century BCE of northeastern India, the fragmentary nature of the information invites speculation and conjecture.  From time to time Mr. Batchelor extrapolates likely scenarios from some of these historical fragments in order to give additional context to the interpretation of the teachings.  These are admittedly tentative, and I consider them to be informed speculations; useful as they are, they seem stretched a bit thin at times.  The author does what he can with the information available and he did find a secondary source to add to that found in the Pali Canon.

I have based the core narrative of the life of Gotama on the account in the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada school as preserved in Tibetan and translated by W. Woodville Rockhill in 1884. My previous book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (2010) reconstructed the story of the Buddha’s life entirely on the basis of Pali sources. The version presented by Rockhill differs in a number of details, but the story is essentially the same. Since these two textual traditions were preserved at opposite ends of the Indian subcontinent, and since their preservers had no contact with each other for centuries, both texts were presumably based on an earlier version that was probably extant until the time of Emperor Asoka (304–232 BCE), who was born only a century or so after the death of the Buddha (x).

The Rockhill book, The Life of the Buddha, is available as a free download on the internet and while I often found the language overly mythical in style (heavens and devas etc.) the persevering reader can extract a wealth of historical information.

Finally, the book concludes with an Afterword which is another historically informed speculation on possible developments in India in the centuries after the death of the Buddha.  It then looks at Buddhism’s encounter with the West from the seventeenth century up to the present day.  Following the Afterword is a section of Selected Discourses from the Pali Canon in the author’s own translations.

The Buddha taught for forty-five years to a variety of people.  His teachings were memorized and passed on orally.  It was over four centuries before they were written down.  During this time they were edited, expanded, condensed, and combined.  Thus we find a variety of voices in the early teachings.  The author identifies six: poetic voices, dramatic voices, skeptical voices, pragmatic voices, dogmatic voices, and mythic voices.  He doesn’t feel that these voices necessarily contradict each other, but it is not difficult to find teachings that do. Any student of the dharma must pick and choose which teachings speak to him or her.  Most Buddhist schools have made their own choices.  Stephen Batchelor is sometimes accused of cherry picking the teachings, but isn’t that what is required in order to find a consistency in them?  I have found his choices and interpretations to make up a consistent teaching that speaks to me at depth that few others do.

I feel Stephen Batchelor has provided a comprehensive answer to his guiding question, and one that I find most compelling.  Even those who are quite familiar with his most recent writings and talks will find new ground and additional depth in After Buddhism.  With the inclusion of the historical pieces setting the context for the author’s interpretations, it is most welcome to have his current understanding of the dharma presented as a complete coherent piece.  Whether you are familiar with his work or not, or agree with his understanding or not, this book is an important contribution to the study of the historical Buddha, and deserves serious attention for it’s well argued, if unorthodox, interpretation of the teachings found in early Buddhist texts that make up the dharma of the Buddha.

Category: Articles

Carl H

About the Author ()

Twenty years after serving as an infantry platoon leader in Viet Nam Carl Hultman chanced upon the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. That began his study and practice of the Buddha's teachings. His wife is a priest at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, and in 2010, after he retired from the Post Office, they moved to the Hokyoji Zen Practice Community in southeast Minnesota to live as resident practitioners. In 2013 he became it's Executive Director.

Comments (7)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks, Carl! This is the best summary I’ve read so far. It sounds like he’s rounding up all the ideas he’s been presenting in dharma talks over the last few years and putting them in a systemized whole. I won’t be reading this till the Kindle edition comes out later in the month, so I appreciate the efforts of Early Adopters!

    • Carl H Carl H says:

      You’re right about a systematized whole, though in addition to the detailed historical material, one piece that hasn’t shown up in his talks or writings is his deconstruction of the “unconditioned.”

  2. brenda.a.brewer brenda.a.brewer says:

    Thank you for a wonderful review. Interest is very piqued to read it. I’m starved for demystified interpretations of these teachings (I enjoy them).

    • JimChampion says:

      There’s an article by Stephen Batchelor called ‘A Secular Buddhism’ that contains a concise account of his ideas for “Buddhism 2.0”, which appear to be the sort of things he covers in this new book.

      Its available as a Word document (?!?) on this page:

      scroll down to the bit that says ‘A Secular Buddhism – an essay, published in the Journal of Global Buddhism, which explores the possibility of a complete secular redefinition of Buddhism’.

  3. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    Thanks for writing up this review. It’s good to know what the new book will cover in advance.

  4. Kenneth S says:

    Carl, I really appreciate this review. I recently read “Buddhism Without Beliefs” and I am now about a third of the way into “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”. I have found it very interesting to read a de-mythologized treatment of Gotama’s life and times and I look forward to following up with “After Buddhism”.

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Thanks for the review, Carl.

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