Reading the past is bit like interpreting a Rorschach test: the more distant the past, the blurrier the image, especially when the society in question was preliterate and archeological evidence is sparse. Over thousands of years the humidity of the plains of the Ganges River dissolved the mud, iron and wood that the people of the Buddha’s time used to construct their world. The Pali Canon, which tells of the Buddha and his times, was not written down until three or four hundred years after the events described were supposed to have occurred. When the Pali Sutras were finally committed to writing, competing texts existed whose comparative antiquity is unknown, but which tell somewhat different stories of the Buddha’s life. As Stephen Batchelor points out in his book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, the Theravada Sutra’s, like most founding religious texts, contain contradictory versions of beliefs and practices. What we know of early Buddhism includes magical events, mystical experiences, moral dictates and elements of even earlier Brahminical ideas, along with bits of social, political and economic history. Like interpretations of the famous ink blot, scholars and different Buddhist sects have varying versions of what happened.
Into this arena Stephen Batchelor has stepped throwing down a gauntlet to the religious traditions of Buddhism. His is a courageous book. Even if you disagree with it from a scholarly perspective, or because of your gut beliefs about Buddhism, the book will challenge you to examine that to which you have committed yourself. Religious Buddhists may have the hardest time with the book because they either don’t share Stephen’s identity as “a late twentieth-century-post-Christian secular existentialist,” or they have different experiences of meditation, devotion, ritual, or service. My sense is that scholars will question the assumptions and details of Stephen’s argument, and religious Buddhists will avoid engaging the book as they have his earlier arguments for a secular Buddhism.
So what does Stephen claim? First, he presents his ideas in the context of his own experiences. For about ten years he was a Buddhist monk. He began as a Tibetan monk where he undertook intense intellectual training in the Dalai Lama’s Geluk order. Although he found his teacher an inspiring human being, he grew dissatisfied with the closed nature of Vajrayana discourse. Instead of probing issues, Stephen found Tibetan learning and disputation merely a way to reassert already closely held beliefs. He describes the group with which he went to Switzerland under Geshe Rabten as a ‘Jesuitical vanguard’: “My mind honed by the subtleties of dialectics, primed to spread the Dharma to Europe…” So after six years of teaching things he grew not to believe, he switched horses and headed off to a Korean Zen monastery. Now suspicious of unchallengeable doctrines he spent four years practicing Zen, including long periods meditating on the Koan, “What is this?” Although the existential essence of this practice appealed to him, he again found the unquestioning beliefs restricting. Having been moved by meditating on the body with the Theravada teacher Goenka many years before, his Zen master’s assertion that mindfulness of breath and body was “no more meaningful than watching a corpse exhale,” disturbed him. As he had become disillusioned with Tibetan’s fixed ideology, he found Koreans’ belief of awakened mind over matter another way of smuggling ideas of eternal Atman, god, or universal consciousness back into what he felt to be meditation’s role of inquiry without fixed conclusions. So, he returned to secular life in England to teach among the Western Theravadans along with his now wife, Martime, who had been a nun while he was a monk.
A few weeks ago I was in the sitting room of my little house under redwood trees in California, eating roasted, dried Salmon made by First Nations’ Tahltan matrons and rushing through Stephen’s book so I could finish it before a book talk he was to give. On the walls of my room were an other-worldly framed embroidered skirt my mother brought in Chichicastenango, Guatemala in the 1950s for one dollar, a picture of the last Maori chief whose face was tattooed like an exotic brown ivory carving, a 1940s Argentinean caricature of two gauchos chopping a hardwood tree entitled “Cabracho lindo,” a huge moose antler I found last year in Shake’s Swamp in the coastal mountains of British Columbia, a Maori snake skin painting, and a water color of a ghost gum tree and blue mountains by the first Australian Aborigine to paint western style. He was hounded for his hubris. On a shelf filled with a life collection of tchotchkes, which people like to call an alter, is a carving in sitka spruce or giant red cedar I did on the Queen Charlottes in my first attempt at a miniature totem pole and a piece of bayo blanco or caoba I futilely tried to carve in the British Honduran jungles. The wood is so dense that it dulled my Buck knife and sinks in water.
Why would a person with my interests read Stephen with such ardor? The pictures of him as a Tibetan monk reprinted in Tricycle Magazine show an angelic man, while his journals of the time indicate how torn he then was. Out of all his experiences this self educated, English hippie turned Tibetan then Zen monk has produced compelling explorations into the struggle many of us have gone through to find a meaning for life in our meditation practices. His first authored book, “Alone with Others” was written in 1980 when he was 27. About the same time I had been sitting intensely for three or four years when Larry Rosenberg, who had earlier forced me to meditate when I was desperate, now ordered me to begin teaching meditation at the university where we had been colleagues. He had been denied tenure some seven years before for doing such an outrageous thing. I, erstwhile mathematician, political revolutionary, sociology professor, back-woodsman, electrician and car mechanic already had tenure and was to carry through for him. I did so for 17 years in spite of the university’s sometimes not so subtle discomfort. Now in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist I find Stephen, a middle class Englishman, some 13 years my junior, treading a similar path of discovery but through vastly different woods.
As he so readily admits, Stephen’s book is a construct. He reads both history and the Pali Canon to create a Buddha for whom inquiry into the nature of suffering in this human body is the central activity of meditation, and things like karma and rebirth are inheritances from Brahmanism (not Hinduism which he well knows is a much later phenomena in India), and belief in them is to be put aside. This, of course, runs head long into many traditions’ claims, that acceptance of them is fundamental to being Buddhist, and if you don’t accept them it is only because your practice is not deep enough to reveal their fundamental truth. Like others, I was once asked by a well-known scholar-monk, who taught meditation, whether I was a Buddhist. I replied with the question of what would make me one. He gave the classic response: refuge in the Buddha, acceptance of (or maybe belief in) karma and rebirth and the four Noble Truths. When he was surprised that I flunked the test, I responded, “I don’t know about being a Buddhist, but I have dedicated a good part of my life over the past 20 years to meditating and I guess I will continue to do so.” Sitting at the Insight Meditation Society for 37 years now, I am troubled by how much it and other Theravada centers have become more and more religious. Like Stephen, with respect to his Lama and Zen Master, I love and respect teachers I have sat with. I have watched some grow and mature in ways that I admire. But still I am uncomfortable with the slide into religion. Although Stephen dismisses Krishnamurti (and given what has been revealed about his life, there is now good reason to), his insistence on inquiry and silence deeply influenced my practice. Being a forest yogi, I found the essence of Ajaan Cha’s, Ajaan Mun’s, and Mahabowa’s teachings to be very much in the same spirit. It is interesting that my meditating in the wilds, rather than a monastery, has led me to much the same insights as Stephen presents.
Where I would argue with him is about the historical and textual evidence he adduces to support his position. But then we are both intellectuals so this is all good material for learning—not a battle for the TRUTH, which we both reject, along with the idea of the absolute versus the relative. Stephen asserts that the absolute is just another way of smuggling in GOD which all Buddhist sects do in spite of Canon references which indicate the Buddha, like the Tar-baby in Walt Disney’s “Song of the South,” was mum on the subject.
I may be wrong, but I think the origin of ethical Buddhism, i.e. splitting the moral and meditation aspects of Buddhism off from what seemed to be its cultural incarnations, lies in the so-called Protestant-Buddhism begun under British occupation of Ceylon in the 19th century. Some Empire builders were attracted to Buddhist ideas but turned off by what they saw as its heathen beliefs. So they cleaned up Buddhism to make it more presentable, and were joined by some Westernized Ceylonese Buddhists. We are indebted to them for bringing Buddhism to the West. * When I first began sitting with Westerners who had come back from Asia, they either didn’t have or hid their Buddhist beliefs. They taught an ethical meditative practice. So if one wants to practice Buddhism in this ethical form can one find support for it in ancient Buddhist history? The citations from the Pali Canon that Stephen examines are a good starting point. Among many other things in the Canon, the Buddha certainly asserts a pure inquiry perspective. And if these are some of earliest dated utterances, as some of the traditions argue, they must be the most authentic—not something added by later editors or commentators. But the antiquity of parts of the Canon is in much dispute. In fact, no one is sure when (and if) the Buddha lived. “….The available sources do not allow reconstruction of the date of the Buddha exactly, because we have no convincing evidence whatsoever of reliable chronological information being handed down in India before Alexander’s campaign.” Archeology and linguistic analysis are of some help here, but the record is incomplete. Religious sources put the Buddha back in the sixth century BCE while some scholars see his death as late as the fourth century BCE. New archeological finds on this are also disputed although believers have jumped on them as confirmation and have begun making pilgrimages. (New York Times, November 25, 2013) One scholar proposes that the Buddha’s use of humor and irony is a good argument for the Sutras having one author. Others object to this thesis. As another put it: prior to king Asoka, some 150 to 200 years after the traditional date assigned to the Buddha, there is little independent evidence of Buddhism, but after Asoka plenty.**
It is interesting how the image of the Buddha we embrace reflects the aspects of life with which we are comfortable. While agreeing with Stephen’s conclusions about the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, it is interesting how Stephen, being a much more civilized person than I, finds the Buddha a civilizing force in a developing civilization. As the objects in my room indicate, I lean more toward the primitive and find in the Sutras and history evidence that the Buddha drew more on his relationship to nature as the source of the same sense of conditionality that Stephen emphasizes. Stephen’s version of the Buddha’s immersion in civilization and politics of the time draws upon Sutra dating and archeology, which are themselves in dispute. Arguing that the Buddha was deeply engaged in both palace and general politics, Stephen wants to make the Buddha a more realistic human being rather than a manifestation of detached saintliness. In his desire to build a stable teaching community, the Buddha needed patrons and patronage meant compromise. Patronage requires a social structure of cities, trade, and tamed countryside. Of one of the major scholarly works on which Stephen draws, a reviewer has to say, “….evidence in support of the thesis that cities were well developed is thin.” Descriptions of cities in the earliest dated parts of the Pali Canon are brief and scarce. And evidence for the material development, which support cities, is lacking. Where it exists in the Canon, the texts are of a much later date.
I prefer a Buddha who was much more of a forest monk. I would like his times to be earlier, at the very beginning of urban existence, when the cities, or gamas (this mysterious Pali word) could be anything from a crossroad with a few craftsmen, to a mud fortified village, to a caravan stopping place. The great northern road that Stephen mentions connecting his developed urban centers, can also be argued to be nothing more than a forest path along which travelers proceeded with great caution, fearful of wild beasts, dacoits, and uncivilized indigenous peoples who may have been hunter-gatherers. In the forest where Siddhartha wandered were also sannyasins (sramanas) of many sorts: matted-haired Brahmin ascetics, shamans, magicians, etc. Moving in and out of gamas were seekers and shamans whose outlooks were pre-agricultural but were making their way into the budding towns. In this scenario the Buddha’s insights into impermanence and contingency, are seen to be inspired by his confrontation with untamed nature and brought back to an emerging civilization where a new won freedom from agricultural drudgery possessed by incipient mercantile and ruling classes gave room in life for discontent to flower. As that society developed it wrote into the Buddha’s story the aspects of civilization and politics which Stephen cites. And the ideas of rebirth and karma that the Buddha took from earlier Brahmanism became embedded as beliefs in the growing religious institutions which his followers built with the help of ever richer patrons. Stephen argues that karma and rebirth were an unquestioned part of the contemporary worldview, and while the Buddha’s original message didn’t support them, he did not argue against them. From my preference for the wild as the inspiration for the Buddha’s discoveries, my ink blot has the porches on which some monks dwelled becoming monasteries in a domestication of Buddhism which held forest wandering as an icon but discouraged it. All newfound civilizations war on the wild, and religions need to tame the charisma of wanderers for fear of their challenging revelations. So the Four Noble Truths and the catechism of rebirth and karma with which Stephen had so much difficulty during his monkhood became embedded in religious institutions that, if Stephen is right, the Buddha laid the groundwork for in order to have his teachings survive. In Stephen’s secular Buddhism, we need to deconstruct some of the beliefs which underlie those institutions in order to return to the Buddha’s original discoveries. I couldn’t agree more, although I might do it sitting under a tree with bugs and snakes as my version of what the Buddha did. Stephen has written a very provocative book. It should be taken seriously by both meditators and teachers of meditation.
The title is a misappropriation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ way of characterizing the effects of culture and society.
*Footnote: there are excellent references for what I have written here. You can find some in the footnotes to “Meditation in the Wild.” If you have
** I like to think that Asoka had a role analogous to that of Constantine in making Christianity part of the state. See my book for an elaboration.