With After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor continues his project of cultivating a secular dhamma. Batchelor’s book is structured as an exegesis of the Pāli Canon, focusing almost exclusively on this early material to reconstruct what might be termed a secular Buddha. This is a Buddha who followed a kind of Pyrrhonian skepticism about truth, who declined to make abstract ethical claims, but who instead put forward a “fourfold task” that we were to pursue for our benefit.
There is a lot to appreciate in Batchelor’s approach. His focus on a this-life, this-world dhamma is one that resonates with both contemporary concerns and our scientifically informed world-view. His stress (p. 314) that the saṅgha of the Canon was fourfold, including both laypeople and bhikkhus (of both sexes) is a welcome corrective to those who may incline to assume otherwise. His reframing of the problematic concept
‘dukkha’ ‘taṇhā‘ as ‘reactivity’ is interesting and promising. I am in general skeptical of odd retranslations of key Buddhist terminology. Some of it is done for narrow, parochial interests, or is simply unilluminating. So for example Ṭhānissaro’s translation of ‘dukkha’ as ‘stress’ always struck me as tin-eared. ‘Reactivity’ has its own problems, being once again more allied to psychology than pain somehow, although its resonance with Buddhist notions of mental proliferation or obsession (papañca) seem to me spot on. Proliferation plays a key role, perhaps the key role, in dukkha understood as a this-life phenomenon.
Skepticism and the Secular Buddha
Batchelor is also almost certainly correct to note that notions of ‘non-duality’ (particularly ‘non-dual consciousness’), the ‘Absolute’, and other similar notions around the later distinction of conventional and ultimate truth have no place in early Buddhism (pp. 11, 139, 191, 201).
Batchelor sees the secular Buddha as setting out a skepticism about truth, as quite a thoroughgoing skeptical pragmatist (p. 129). Following Luis Gomez (1976), Batchelor looks to the Aṭṭhakavagga (perhaps one of the earliest Buddhist texts) as an example of Gotama’s generalized “proto-Mādhyamika” skeptical doubt (p. 252).
Indeed, Batchelor suggests that the philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, founder of the Greek Skeptic school, may have learned his skepticism from a Buddhist monk, while on travels in India (p. 330). If so, perhaps we can learn of the secular Buddha’s skeptical bent through Pyrrho’s approach to philosophy. Perhaps this historical route is one less tainted by later, more “metaphysical” turns in Buddhist philosophy.
The “Fourfold Task”
Batchelor’s reframing of the Four Noble Truths in terms of a “Fourfold Task” is along these same practical lines. Justin Whitaker and I have argued (forthcoming) that the Buddha was best seen as an ethicist, in the sense of one arguing for the best way to live. His teachings were first and foremost ethical teachings, proposing practices and manners of action, and these are most concisely formulated as tasks in the Buddha’s so-called First Sermon, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Saṃyutta Nikāya 56.11).
However it is one thing to say that for the Buddha tasks were paramount, but tasks and truths interrelate, and quite another to say that there were tasks but not truths. Batchelor takes the position of the secular Buddha to be against the claim of the dhamma in terms of truths.
Sometime during the centuries after Gotama’s death, Buddhism seems to have taken a metaphysical turn. By adopting a language of truth, Buddhists moved from an engaged agency with the world to the theorizing stance of a detached subject contemplating epistemic objects. Rather than consider injunctions to guide their ethical actions, they debated the truth of propositions in order to support their beliefs. They shifted, seemingly en masse with little if any resistance, from prescription to description, from pragmatism to ontology, from skepticism to dogmatism (pp. 115-116).
In the centuries after the Buddha’s death, Buddhist philosophy turned from a grounded, practical enterprise to one of the most recondite and scholastic systems in human history. The question is how early back this process began, and whether indeed the interest in theory and truth went back to the Buddha himself. (Insofar as we can know anything at all about the historical Buddha, which I will assume we can).
One key danger in this sort of enterprise is that we not engage in what I will term devotional exegetics: that is, in assuming that what we find most congenial in the tradition must go back to its founder, and that what we find less congenial must have therefore been added later by other, less scrupulous followers.
A Skeptical Buddha?
Doubt is the hallmark of skepticism, that mental state which one is to cultivate. In After Buddhism Batchelor makes clear the role that doubt plays in Zen (pp. 243-5), which he studied for many years. Elsewhere he cites the Zen aphorism “Great doubt, great awakening. Little doubt, little awakening. No doubt, no awakening.”
The question is how any of this reflects on the earliest teachings. I do not believe the Buddha was a Skeptic. As Batchelor himself notes (p. 245), the key skeptical term “doubt” (vicikicchā) occurs in the Canon in an almost universally negative light: doubt is one of the five hindrances that must be overcome even to reach the first jhāna, much less nibbāna itself. It is true, doubt can spur us on to investigation (dhammavicaya), but this is only so as to dispel doubt through insight.
Batchelor relies on the historian Eusebius to describe Pyrrhonian Skepticism:
… Pyrrho declared that things are equally in-different, un-measurable and un-decidable. Therefore, neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods.
Therefore, we should not put the slightest trust in them, but be without judgment, without preference, and unwavering, saying about each thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is or is not.
The result for those who adopt this attitude, says Timon, will first be speechlessness (aphatos), then untroubledness (ataraxia). (p. 254).
Superficially this sounds akin to the Kaccānagotta Sutta:
‘All exists’ (sabbam atthi): Kaccāna, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’ (sabbaṃ natthi): this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: [through the formula of dependent arising] (SN 12.15).
I have argued, however, that the Kaccānagotta Sutta’s statement should not be taken as a kind of skeptical or anti-metaphysical aphasia, instead it is a statement about impermanence and nothing more: if “all exists” or “all does not exist” then there can be no change, for change is a process of certain things coming into existence and other things passing away.
The position of the Pyrrhonian Skeptic is perhaps best illustrated in the Canon by Sañjaya Belaṭṭhaputta, quoted as saying:
If I thought that it was so, I would declare to you “It is so.” But I do not say “It is this way,” nor “It is that way,” nor “It is otherwise.” I do not say “It is not so,” nor do I say “It is not not so.” (Dīgha Nikāya 2; Bodhi 1989: 29).
The Buddha calls Belaṭṭhaputta an “eel wriggler” because he refused to be pinned down to any positive statement at all. The Buddha’s clear impatience with this kind of skeptical aphasia is, I think, reason enough for us not to consider the Buddha a Skeptic of the Pyrrhonian sort.
Further, Pyrrho was said to have been taught by “gymnosophistai” or “naked sophists”. Nowhere in the Canon is there any mention of Buddhist monks or lay followers going around naked, indeed my understanding from the Vinaya rules is that one was expected always to be clothed in public. Thus if and only if a monastic had their robe stolen were they allowed to ask for another from a layperson. This was to ensure they would not wander around naked. Nakedness was an example of extreme asceticism of the kind rejected by the Buddha. Hence it is quite unlikely Pyrrho learned from naked Buddhists, although one cannot be certain.
Dhamma and Truth
While reference to “Four Noble Truths” may indeed not be original to the First Sermon, the question is whether such language runs counter to the Buddha’s teachings elsewhere in the Canon, and therefore whether (for instance) such language could have been introduced into recitations of that sermon during his lifetime, and with his acquiescence. It is Batchelor’s contention that reference to “truth” introduces a dogmatic, metaphysical turn in the dhamma that was not Gotama’s intention.
The problem is that one really cannot make much sense of the early teachings without some notion of truth or accuracy in view and understanding. For example the Buddha notes four “inversions of perception”: taking the impermanent to be permanent, what is suffering to be pleasurable, what is not-self to be self, and what is unattractive to be attractive. (Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.49). It is in overcoming these inversions that we acquire “right view”, and that right view is expressed in corresponding truth claims, for instance that all conditioned things are impermanent, suffering, and non-self. Thus awakening is said to involve “seeing clearly with correct wisdom as it really is.” (E.g., SN 12.20).
Indeed, the expression of the first of the four tasks is in terms of understanding or comprehending (pariññā) dukkha. That process is unpacked in some detail in the Chachakka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 148) whereby this awareness leads to knowledge or the liberation from ignorance and confusion. Now, such knowledge is not formulaic or didactic. It is not the mere assent to a list of propositions. Instead it is knowledge of a deeper, more transformative sort, the kind that one feels in one’s bones, rather than simply up in the head.
But here is the thing: these two kinds of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it seems the second sort requires the first. If we are to come to the deep awareness that the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha, it must be true that the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha. Conversely, we cannot come to the deep understanding that consciousness is my self, because it is not true that consciousness is my self. Truth and understanding, truth and knowledge, truth and comprehension, all go hand in hand in this way. It may be that these are all truths present to us in our awareness in some fashion; they are not hidden or secret. But that doesn’t make them any less true.
Certain stanzas in the Aṭṭhakavagga appear to express the deeply skeptical position that one should avoid ‘views’ or truth-claims of any sort. The question is how such expressions could be consistent with a Canon rife with views and truth-claims. One possibility is that the Aṭṭhakavagga expressed the only correct teaching of Gotama, and all the rest was not in his spirit at all. In that case, perhaps Gotama was a kind of pre-incarnation of Pyrrho. I argue otherwise (2015) that even within the Aṭṭhakavagga there are theories, views, and truth-claims. Hence that text should not be seen as a skeptical abandonment of all views or all truths. Instead it should be seen as in the spirit of the rest of the Canon: an extended argument for abandoning clinging to, and identification with, such views and truths, so as to avoid egoistic disputatiousness. If this is correct then the Aṭṭhakavagga does not lend support to the notion that the Buddha’s dhamma was radically altered by his early followers in some “metaphysical” or “ontological” direction.
Dhamma and Metaphysics
In the context of the Kaccānagotta Sutta Batchelor says that the Buddha “is comfortable with a language of process but rejects the language of ontology.” (p. 85). This is difficult to understand. “Process philosophy” so-called has its own ontology, its own metaphysics. It is that of processes, which are basically things or events with vague identity conditions. (See Rescher).
As Batchelor cites in the opening to his Chapter 11, the Buddha is happy to agree with “the wise” as to what exists and what does not exist. (SN 22.94). The Buddha then goes on to elaborate what exists: the (impermanent) five aggregates. That is his ontology, at least as a good first go. With more care we might add that the Buddha accepts the existence of ghosts, devas, heaven and hell realms, and so on; other furniture of the cosmology of his day that would also have been accepted by “the wise”.
Batchelor’s ‘secular Buddha’ is one skeptical of beliefs of all kinds, including those about rebirth and other odd notions that have not stood the test of time. As I have argued before, these arguments are all well and good when taken in the spirit of an updated dhamma for the twenty first century. As an argument for what Gotama might actually have believed however, they amount to a kind of special pleading. If anything is clear in the Canon it is that the Buddha believed in literal rebirth, and that kammic actions determined that literal rebirth. I imagine this is the kind of metaphysical dogmatism that Batchelor finds so problematic, and which he intends his hermeneutic of skepticism to defeat: if indeed the Buddha were a fully pragmatic skeptic, then perhaps all his talk about rebirth and kamma was only for show.
I would flip the question around. If as it seems the Buddha was entirely serious about rebirth and kamma, then perhaps the claims about his being a fully pragmatic skeptic don’t really hold water. Although the Buddha was more skeptical about many things than most of his peers, refusing to answer many key metaphysical and cosmological questions of his day, and disdaining miracles at least in certain contexts, he was not a Skeptic-with-a-capital-S. That is, he was neither a Skeptic in the Pyrrhonian nor the modern sense of the term. Although the Buddha was more pragmatic than most of his peers, caring more about whether techniques were skillful at achieving their ends rather than in doctrinal purity, he was not a Pragmatist-with-a-capital-P.
Situational and Abstract Ethics
Batchelor makes the case that the Buddha’s ethics was “situational” rather than “abstract”. (pp. 223, 271). There is some truth to the claim that the Buddha tended to develop rules on an ad hoc or post hoc basis. He also appears to have been something of an ethical pragmatist rather than doctrinaire. Nevertheless the Buddha’s Five Precepts (abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and abuse of intoxicants) are as abstract as can be. So too, interestingly, are Batchelor’s own Ten Theses of Secular Dharma with which he finishes the main portion of his text. (p. 321).
How could it be otherwise? While we remain unmoved by abstract ethical guidelines that bear no relation to our lives, such as those of the Ten Commandments urging praise of a deity, a purely situational ethics would result in unskillful chaos. Situational ethics requires abstract principles of some kind to get them off the ground, to which we turn when confronted by a new situation. Either we strive to become aware of, and hone such principles, or we are likely to be moved by poorly thought-out or unskillful principles. To act with compassion is an abstract principle, but one that is skillful.
The Secular Sublime
Finally there is the question as to Batchelor’s interest in what might be termed the secular sublime: that “To embrace dukkha entails letting go of one’s views about suffering in order to open oneself to the mystery of suffering.” (p. 245) Sublimity, as I see Batchelor describe it, is a sort of this-world experience of nibbāna as an aesthetic sensibility. This is perhaps best illustrated in the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi” or “mono no aware” that I mentioned in a prior piece.
My concern with this move is that it makes liberation from clinging and “reactivity” into a kind of aesthetic connoisseurship. Whatever liberation may be, I do not believe it to be any kind of feeling or aesthetic awareness. It is instead essentially a skill, or so I think the Canon would have us believe. Exercise of that skill may indeed be pleasurable, in a particularly refined sense of pleasure (indeed the Buddha describes it as “paramaṃ sukhaṃ” or the greatest pleasure), but I think relating it to Coleridge’s romantic notion of sublimity is a bit of a stretch.
Perhaps it is that expressions like “the mystery of suffering” and “the everyday sublime” strike me as having more in common with a sort of post-modern theism, with a sort of mystical experience of an ill-defined God, than with Buddhism of any sort, much less that of the Pāli Canon. That said, this may only have to do with matters of taste.
Secular Buddhists are extremely lucky to have Stephen Batchelor carry the banner. Long years of intense practice of both Tibetan Buddhism and Korean Zen provide him with insight into traditional forms of belief and practice that inform his writings on the deepest level. He cannot be dismissed by traditionalists, and so must be dealt with, as much as those living in a crumbling edifice must deal with a tree growing through its roof.
My concern with his approach in After Buddhism boils down to a sense that he has not captured the historical Buddha, at least as found in the Pāli texts. Instead he has formulated a kind of ‘secular Buddha’ along broadly skeptical, pragmatic lines. In this I think Batchelor is more influenced by his long history with Tibetan Madhyamaka, Korean Zen, and Western post-modernism, than by the Buddha of the Canon.
Hermeneutical creativity has a long history. But I think as practitioners we owe it to the history of the texts to be true to the scholarship as best we see it. Yes, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Early Buddhist scholarship remains in its infancy. And there remains the very live possibility that the Buddha simply changed his mind from time to time, as teachers do over long careers, particularly under the influence of their pupils.
While early Buddhist notions of rebirth are best discarded in the context of a modern updating of the dhamma, I think doing so through a generalized skepticism of truth or belief is not the best way to go about it. Truth has a key role to play in any accurate understanding of the world.
Socrates believed in rebirth. Newton spent many of his last years involved in alchemy and theological dispute. Perhaps in so doing they simply reflected the views of their day, but both appear nevertheless to have believed with complete earnestness. Even the smartest, wisest people get things wrong from time to time. Our awareness of this fact is in its own way liberating.
Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism (Yale, 2015).
Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Discourse on the Fruits of Recluseship (BPS, 1989).
Bhikkhu Bodhi, Various Nikāyas (Wisdom).
Luis Gomez, “Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli Canon,” Philosophy East and West, April 1976, 26:2.
Nicholas Rescher, Process Metaphysics (SUNY Press, 1996).
Douglass Smith and Justin Whitaker, “Reading the Buddha as a Philosopher,”Philosophy East and West (Forthcoming).