A Few Words on Bodhi and Batchelor

logo_v4_300pxI would like to have more time to respond to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recent piece on Secular Buddhism over at Secular Buddhism New Zealand, “Facing the Great Divide”, as well as to Stephen Batchelor’s lengthy response in the comments. Unfortunately time is short so I will be necessarily brief.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Bodhi’s essay is something of an olive branch to secularism, particularly contrasted with his 1994 piece, “A Buddhist Response to Contemporary Dilemmas of Human Existence”, in which he talked about how “secularization invades the most sensitively private arenas of our lives, spurred on by a social order driven by the urge for power, profits and uniformity”, and found secularization responsible for “existential dislocation” and “moral degeneration”.

His new essay by contrast does at least go to some lengths to point out secularism’s advantages as well as its (perceived) disadvantages. Further, his new essay does not tar secularism with the brush of moral turpitude. In that it is an advance over the Nikāya approach to materialism as found in such suttas as the Apaṇṇaka and the Sandaka. We have got a long way if we have put the moral issues into the background.

Instead Bodhi is willing to countenance that

Secular Buddhism … opens doors to the Dharma for people inclined to the experiential emphasis of the hard sciences. Secular Buddhists have also devised new applications of the Dharma neglected or bypassed by the tradition, bringing Buddhist practices into such areas as health care, education, prison work and psychotherapy.

This is no small advance over his earlier suspicion, and should be lauded. Bodhi also notes that all forms of Buddhism, both Classical and Secular, could learn from the Abrahamic religions (and I would add secular activists) in their turn towards political and social activism. This is a point I cited Bodhi for in my “Buddhist Ethics for an Age of Technological Change”, over at Justin Whitaker’s blog.

The main problem with Bodhi’s essay, it will come as no surprise, comes in the section where he outlines what he sees as “the principal weakness of Secular Buddhism”, that is, scientific naturalism. In response he says,

[I]f Classical Buddhism holds fast to its original standpoint, it may well expand the horizons of science beyond materialist reductionism, opening the scientific mind to subtler dimensions of reality.

This is the stand of most traditional religious thinkers when confronted by modernity: the assumption that their anecdotal claims are as valid as data scientifically vetted, and the confidence that their tradition has enabled them to get in touch with realities unknown by science.

All that can be said in response is that Bodhi appears to be unaware of the depth of scientific understanding, as well as the decades-long unsuccessful attempts to find the kinds of “subtler dimensions of reality” mentioned in the classical texts.

As regards rebirth, I have outlined some of the evidence in a previous essay. Similar essays have been written responding to claims for ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, and other mythical abilities spoken of in the old texts.

Suffice to say that the days in which scientists were genuinely interested in such claimed phenomena are long gone; that field appears to be barren. While there is always the remote possibility of a future breakthrough, at this point we are well justified in assuming that no such breakthrough is forthcoming.

Stephen Batchelor

Now to turn, once again all too briefly, to Stephen Batchelor’s response: we are in agreement that the Four Noble Truths can perhaps best be understood as four tasks to be undertaken; indeed, Justin Whitaker and I have argued just that in a forthcoming paper. But this does not discount that the Buddha taught that these were to be believed and understood as well. Indeed, the first “task” that the Buddha put forward was that dukkha was to be understood; this he elaborated in the Chachakka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 148) as understanding dukkha’s role in all of perceived reality.

I think Batchelor’s oft-stated claim that “the ancient Indian worldview is not intrinsic but extrinsic to the Buddha’s teaching”, as well as his related claim that the Buddha

was not an ontologist, who claimed that the way he saw the world corresponded to the way it ‘really’ is

are both forms of special pleading, however. It may well have been that the Buddha’s views on rebirth were not original to him; that does not establish that they were extrinsic to his dhamma. One may well say, and I do say, that they were not essential to that dhamma, in that one can understand the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of practice without them. But his belief in rebirth was not an excrescence any more than Aquinas’s belief in the divinity of Christ was an excrescence in his interpretation of Aristotle.

Further, the Buddha did quite emphatically claim that the way he saw the world corresponded to the way it ‘really’ was. For example when discussing dependent origination, the Buddha says a disciple understands it when he “has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.20). And as regards the Noble Truths,

[T]hose ascetics and brahmins who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is suffering’; who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’: these I do not consider to be ascetics among ascetics or brahmins among brahmins, and these venerable ones do not, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, enter and dwell in this very life, in the goal of asceticism or the goal of brahminhood. (SN 56.22; cf. DN i.83-4).

“As it really is” (yathābhūtaṃ) is in this case, among other things, a metaphysical claim. To say otherwise is, as I say, special pleading. The world displays the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. The world functions according to the law of dependent origination. To deny the metaphysical import of these claims I think is to be more influenced by the later, particularly Madhyamaka and Zen, traditions as well as Western post-modernism.

This is not to say that the Buddha “was an ontologist”, as Batchelor put it. He was first and foremost an ethicist, as we might say in the West, in the ancient Greek tradition of looking for the best sort of life. His ontology, his metaphysics, was always in the service of his ethics. But that is not to say he did not make ontological and other metaphysical claims.

Right understanding of these claims is skillful of course, but as Paul Williams said,

The teachings of the Buddha are held by the Buddhist tradition to work because they are factually true (not true because they work). … The ‘ought’ (pragmatic benefit) is never cut adrift from the ‘is’ (cognitive factual truth). Otherwise it would follow that the Buddha might be able to benefit beings (and thus bring them to enlightenment) even without seeing things the way they really are at all. And that is not Buddhism. (Williams, Tribe, and Wynne 2012: 28-9)

Now of course we have discovered that some of those apparent truths, such as claims of rebirth and extrasensory abilities, are almost certainly incorrect, so we discard them in our updating of the dhamma. Fortunately our practice is not significantly altered in doing so.

Finally, Batchelor brings up the case of the Soka Gakkai, and asks whether even they correspond to Bodhi’s understanding of “Classical Buddhism”. In an earlier piece on a debate between Batchelor and Ajahn Brahmali I made much the same point, only with regard to traditions such as the Vajrayana, in which sex and alcohol are allowed, in Zen which allows marriage, and even with regard to the Mahāyāna in general which is often strictly vegetarian. Vegetarianism in the early tradition is associated with Devadatta, the Buddha’s nefarious cousin.

The problem with defining Classical Buddhism in order to red-line Secular Buddhism is that one ends up ruling out many actual religious Buddhists.

I think the ‘definition game’, like the ‘identity game’, tends to promote egoism and clinging, and hence is not of terribly much use. It doesn’t really interest me to decide who is a “real Buddhist” and who is not. Scholarly accuracy matters, but what matters most is good practice, good will, kindness, generosity, and compassion.

It is in that spirit that I take Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay, and Batchelor’s response, in a positive light. They both constitute steps forward towards “promot[ing] fruitful exchanges between [Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism], undertaken in a shared quest for a wider understanding of the Dharma in its full range, relevance and depth.”



Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom, 2000).

Douglass Smith and Justin Whitaker, “Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher”, Philosophy East and West (forthcoming).

Paul Williams, Anthony Tribe, and Alexander Wynne, Buddhist Thought, 2nd Ed. (Routledge, 2012).