Saturday, June 19, 2010

Stephen Batchelor

In this interview over at Buddhist Geeks, Stephen Batchelor (author of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist") takes some time once again to share his self-described "secular" approach to Buddhism, an approach that has won him praise, blame, and book sales.

The entire Stephen Batchelor spectacle is fascinating, in some of the same ways that a house fire is fascinating. True, Mr. Batchelor brings a good deal of knowledge and study to the table, and his talks can be helpful in arriving at a better understanding of some elements of what the Buddha taught. But his propensity to create divisions and fuel disputes becomes a distraction. For example, Mr. Batchelor tells Vince Horn:

... there appears, in the Buddhist community, to be a fault line that demarcates two quite different camps. One, of what one might call the conservatives or the traditionalists who can’t quite imagine how you could have Buddhism without the doctrine of rebirth. And another camp, which would include, obviously, people like myself, who I would maybe portray as more liberal, more secular in orientation, who have exactly the opposite problem -- mainly, they cannot conceive of a Buddhist practice or at least an intelligible Buddhist practice, having to incorporate what looks to them, what looks to me, like an antiquated, pre-modern belief.

And we see here very clearly how muddled Mr. Batchelor's presentation can be. I believe it's no accident that he only uses the term "practice" in describing the "secular" orientation. The "conservatives," on the other hand, he portrays as clinging to doctrine.

Mr. Batchelor does an untidy job of muddling together two different sets of contrasting approaches:
1) Those who put great stock in concepts versus those who focus on how to live in this present moment; and
2) Those who believe in rebirth versus those who do not.

Mr. Batchelor ignores the fact that these are entirely unrelated sets. Belief or disbelief in rebirth is unrelated to whether one puts emphasis on concepts or on practice.

The fascinating thing about this is that Mr. Batchelor appears to be advocating for an approach that focuses on practice, not on concepts, yet he keeps on returning to concepts. His message appears to be that it doesn't matter if he can't bring himself to believe in rebirth; he can still be a Buddhist because he can still practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Strangely, however, Mr. Batchelor comes back again and again to concepts. He keeps on talking about how the rebirth notion defies "what we currently understand through the natural sciences," how it carries "a whole range of philosophical and psychological problems."

"Now, I really just do not understand what that could mean; it simply does not make sense to me," he says of the notion of rebirth. He labels it a "doctrine."


Personally, I would find Mr. Batchelor's presentation much more helpful if he could decide which approach he wants to take. Does he want to encourage the practice of living skillfully in this present moment? Or does he want to encourage debate about concepts?

There should be no confusion about the Dhamma. We can understand this very clearly: Mental formations are not self. They are impermanent. And their underlying nature is suffering. Of course we will probably have some opinion about rebirth. We believe it, or we don't believe it. Can we help it? Can we really flip a switch and decide what we want to believe? Do we have control over our convictions?

And even if we think we do, what do we think we're going to accomplish? If we organize our beliefs just right, will that somehow get us closer to some perceived goal?

Mr. Batchelor is right when he suggests that it is possible to practice regardless of one's beliefs or disbeliefs. How could it be otherwise? We can only start where we are. And we know that in some respects, any beliefs that we have are imperfect, and also subject to change and revision in the future as our understanding grows. There should be no confusion about this; this is a path of liberation through not clinging, including not clinging to our mental formations.

But there also should be no confusion about this: The notion of post-mortem rebirth is part and parcel of the Buddha's teachings we have received. The Pali texts are replete with clear, unambiguous examples of the Buddha describing the rebirth outcome of his disciples, or describing ghosts passing by who had been humans in a previous birth, or describing once-returners and non-returners. In these teachings, it seems very clear that the Buddha simply took it for granted that his listeners in those instances understood rebirth as a reality. Does that mean we can't practice if we can't bring ourselves to believe in rebirth? No. But does it mean that we need to rejigger Buddhism to fit our preconceived notions of reality? Mr. Batchelor seems to think so.

This is very much a discussion about what is comfortable. Mr. Batchelor appears to argue that there needs to be a new Buddhism for the secular, Western world. Give us a Buddhism that fits with our modern sensibilities. Give us a Buddhism that bolsters our current mental formations.

"I honestly don’t think the Buddha was interested in the nature of reality," Batchelor says. And implicit in that statement is the assumption that there must be some "reality" out there, separate from this heap of aggregates, separate from this All that the Buddha so clearly describes. And that is a perilous proposition indeed.

One thing that Mr. Batchelor gets absolutely right is that "atheism" is an accurate word to use in describing disbelief in an abiding self. Although most often "atheism" refers to a lack of belief in God, Mr. Batchelor correctly perceives that any concept of God necessitates a concept of self. And so, while acknowledging that beliefs are not the point, Mr. Batchelor takes a firm stance with regard to his own personal beliefs. He is an atheist. That's just the way he is.

One gets the sense that we should take seriously the way Mr. Batchelor portrays his message (as his latest book title suggests), namely, as a confession. Is this all just about Mr. Batchelor's personal struggles with his own belief systems? Has he put on display his own effort to reconcile his hopes, his dreams, his expectations with a tradition that he views as judgmental of him? And thus he feels compelled to confess in order to arrive at some inner peace in his struggle? Is that what this is about?

A confession, after all, is a very personal thing.


  1. Extremely interesting, thanks. I came here via your link at the "Difficult Pill" blog post on Buddhist Geeks. I think your mention of the two conflated but different issues (debating whether practice should be based in the here-and-now, and debating concepts of rebirth) is a very valuable one. I haven't seen it explained elsewhere, but I think it could shed a lot of light on the discussion.

  2. Although I have been aware and interested in Buddhism for 40 years I have only been able to find a teacher 4 weeks ago. During a discussion of my own addiction to analytical thought, my teacher (who is very practical, clear and helpful) recommended I read one of Bachelor's books.

    As you rightly point out, "The fascinating thing about this is that Mr. Batchelor appears to be advocating for an approach that focuses on practice, not on concepts, yet he keeps on returning to concepts".

    Imagine my surprise on finding that the author my teacher recommended has the same problem as me! :-)

    For the moment your comment, "Mental formations are not self", has reminded me to stop chewing on the menu and get back to eating the meal.

    Thank you for your insights.