After Buddhism

After BuddhismFor the most part, traditional Buddhists nervously paint Stephen Batchelor as the bad boy of modern Buddhism, a half-baked misinterpreter who throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Unfortunately for them, he’s a highly articulate and creative thinker whose scholarship speaks for itself.

His new book After Buddhism takes after Gianni Vattimo’s After Christianity. Both books seek to interpret (some would say invent) their respective religion in ways that are sensible to modern readers. That means, quite simply, that neither author expects us to put aside our common sense.

Modern Buddhists especially need a Buddha who bleeds, weeps, ages and suffers like the rest of us, who is not a grotesque parody of saintly perfection. If the Buddha really exhibited the 32 major bodily signs described by tradition, says Batchelor, “he would be a monster.”

In this book, Batchelor explores his plainly relatable Buddha by highlighting the man’s conversations with lesser known contemporaries: bit-players who are almost entirely ignored by traditional scholars. The most educated among them, Doctor Jivaka, is very helpful to the Buddha’s community but doesn’t seem the least bit interested in his Dharma. Another, Mahāli the Licchavi nobleman, asks the Buddha to confirm that, “life is suffering.” This phrase is common shorthand today for so-called Buddhist philosophy and is recited by rote in ‘authoritative’ books. Significantly, the Buddha dismisses Mahāli’s simplistic notion, countering that life is “also pleasurable.”

After Buddhism is written for a modern world with no divine beings, that views metaphysics with suspicion and has little doubt that humankind is destined for oblivion

Batchelor upsets the apple cart of tradition and piques one’s suspicion that the doctrines of Buddhism are an institutional afterthought, a construct derived from, but not respectful of, what the Buddha taught. It’s no wonder the religious authorities try to dismiss him; and yet his influence grows.

In fact, Batchelor’s main thesis is even more revolutionary and mundane. He is of the opinion that the Buddha didn’t teach any doctrine at all; merely a way to let go of reactivity—though that’s hardly trivial. Reactivity is our animal mode; to transcend it may be the most pragmatic enlightenment possible.

Reading about the Buddha’s encounters with his contemporaries, one gets the distinct impression that Buddhism was invented after the Buddha’s death, just as was Christianity after Christ’s death.

Out of the unlikely hat of a 26-century old religion, Batchelor pulls a compelling and very relevant white rabbit

Batchelor is not just trying to stir things up. This book is far-reaching and constructive. It serves a deep need that’s rarely addressed: a historical evaluation of Buddhism; what he calls, “rethinking the dharma from the ground up.” It is written for a modern world with no divine beings, that views metaphysics with suspicion and has little doubt that humankind is destined for oblivion. Out of the unlikely hat of a 26-century old religion, Batchelor pulls a compelling and very relevant white rabbit.

After Buddhism is both a work of art and a demonstration of the Buddha’s artistry. By condemning Batchelor’s creativity, diehard defenders of Buddhist faith yet again make themselves look small and timid. By contrast, spiritual explorers with nothing to defend are buoyed by his insight and lack of pretense.

If you have any interest in the divergent stories of Buddha and Buddhism, this book provides a plethora of new perspectives. Like the Buddha’s metaphorical elephant, you can inspect them from many sides and get a  better sense of his life and times.

Will that be a complete, infallible rendering of precisely what the Buddha meant? Think again. No self-respecting Buddhist would invest in such illusory certainties.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

30 thoughts on “After Buddhism”

  1. This is simply another attempt to put condom on the power of the original Buddha’s teaching, like readers were unable to understand its different layers. I wish the same sponsoring were also for the Digha Nikaya, Majjhma Nikaya and the rest of the Canon, but of course the Buddha is not here to market them. Notwithstanding they are what someone interested in this path should read.

    1. Hi Fabrizio: I’m not sure whether you’re supporting or rejecting Batchelor here. When you say, “This is simply another attempt to put condom on the power of the original Buddha’s teaching,” what does “This” refer to?

  2. Stephen’s book Buddhism Without Belief’s was a fantastic read, and sparked a turning point in my practice. I finally realised there is no need to subscribe to any one school of Buddhist thought and tradition to practice the dharma – it belongs to no one. I’m really looking forward to reading this latest offering!

  3. Very nicely written Stephen! I got my copy early this week and have just started reading it! I am look forward to spending time with it!

  4. Can’t wait to read the book. But now I wait patiently for a book to be written called “After New Atheism” as well. Humankind may be headed for oblivion, and we maybe should view “metaphysics with suspicion”, but whether it’s Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, or Lawrence Kruass, or any other popular science writer out there, many have all argued there’s no need at all for metaphysics today—and then written the rest of their books by taking metaphysical positions.

    There is still a lot about the universe we don’t understand; as we have yet to fully unify physics. I’m not saying that is enough to save us, but we can’t over state what we know either…

    1. I think Batchelor would agree ‘that there’s no need at all for metaphysics today.’ See what he says in Chapter 9—The Everyday Sublime:

      “I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I only reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’”

      1. Well then I guess this debate (like so many) really comes down to semantics. Even the fact he says “time and space”, as opposed to “space and time” is taking a position. Eminent physicist and quantum cosmologist Lee Smolin (who is well versed in philosophy) was asked in an interview about metaphysics and this is what he said. First the question: “Right, scientists have declared philosophy dead in a number of recent books. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, was especially funny, since the opening basically says there’s no need for metaphysics—but then the rest of the book is metaphysics.

        Smolin’s answer: I thought that was so embarrassing. Or Lawrence Krauss—he is a brilliant and articulate and highly effective advocate for science—and I am usually on his side, but in this one case he got in over his head and claimed that inflationary cosmology solved the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. David Albert did a review of Lawrence’s book (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html ), and I remember thinking, ‘This is the most cutting and acerbic review of anything I’ve ever read.’ But he was right. He took Lawrence to task for being ignorant of what philosophers were trying to understand.

        I did my undergrad degree at Hampshire, and it was partly physics and partly philosophy. We called it natural philosophy. I went to graduate school in physics intending to do a degree in philosophy but was very turned off by the philosophers I met. Meanwhile, the philosophers of physics of my generation, people like David Albert, Simon Saunders and Harvey Brown, are much more knowledgeable about the technical details of physics. They know physics very well, and they are very sophisticated about contemporary physics.

    2. Bravo “F”. Especially about Krauss, who is even willing to dispense with the entire field of philosophy in his immature certainty.

      People who regard “metaphysics with suspicion” nowadays generally do so because they are dogmatically materialist, and cannot stomach the notion that all of reality, nature, and inner experience is not fully explainable via matter and physics. To shore up this article of their faith, which they dearly wish to preserve from scrutiny, they either cheer for or themselves pursue a scientific agenda which assumes at the get-go that matter is everything. This forced foundation has eventually brought us to several absurd impasses. In Physics, Lee Smolin has described this, and we see the untestable fantasy of the multiverse, for example. In Psychology, we see the mindless attempts to extend evolutionary and natural selection mechanisms to explain phenomena it is entirely unsuitable for, such as cultural norms, and thinking patterns. In Medicine, it has led to a reductive emphasis upon specific organs rather than perceiving their concerted activity. This unhealthy specialization in combination with the unprecedented search for new drugs has created a health crisis which also has a huge economic dimension.

      Thus we have reductionism, mechanism, and materialism distorting all forms of inquiry in the present cultural life.

      When people then satisfyingly equate this flawed vantage point with modernity, they are missing the fact, obvious in the absence of these assumptions, that the current post-modern malaise and impasse is a result and consequence of the underlying materialism. Materialism is a schizophrenic belief, because in order to hold to it, one needs to reject the very nature of the thinking and intuition necessary to conclude this in the first place! It is especially ironic when purveyors of mindfulness adhere to this position, for then one must ask how clearly or with what depth such people have introspected into their own thinking.

      Some people come to this distorted view because of psychological issues surrounding youthful religious experiences which have been overcome with some resistance and social pressure. Having ‘freed’ themselves from doctrines and theologies which they could not accept, they mistakenly associate any supra-physical conceptions about reality whatsoever as being polluted by the same fallacy and arbitrariness as their old religious dogmas. But this association is too facile and it is accepted as belief without the appropriate degree of examination, usually as received wisdom. If you can think your way to recognizing that centuries of religious doctrines surrounding a seminal figure you may admire are simply arbitrary constructs without internal consistency, then you should also be able to see that using the existence of such false constructs to conclude that metaphysics should be discarded is bad logic.

      Good for Batchelor when he proclaims “rethinking the dharma from the ground up”. This is what all genuine inner work is about, anyway. Let’s just make sure the “ground” doesn’t include any unearned sacred cows! If you’re in love with adopting materialism as your ground, then you should be able to fully explain how your thinking consciousness arises on this basis, out of your own experience. Otherwise, place this fake template aside so that your dharma building will be pure. In that sense, Wittgenstein was correct. The phenomena of life, of self-consciousness, of moral intuition and abstract reasoning are all blatant examples of the ‘mystical’ within everyday reality. I would add that if a person believes that a serious inner work can proceed without confronting exactly these phenomena head on, which lie at our core, then that person is deluding himself.

  5. The radicalness of this book is confusing to me because the way I studied Buddhism is exactly as he presents it, that the Buddha didn’t teach any doctrine at all; merely a way to let go of reactivity, and of a world with no divine beings, and that he believed metaphysics was to be viewed with suspicion and as without value. I don’t know of any Buddhist doctrines other than these.

  6. Intellectual posturing. Yes indeed. I was unable to establish the point of some of the earlier long and rambling posts, apparently about philosophy! Is it really that necessary to write so many words to make a point (which was lost)? Probably not. Anyway, I am eagerly awaiting my copy of the book for the next instalment of Stephen’s thinking about the dharma. Thank you very much for the review which was (pleasantly) not too long and rambling but succinct and thoughtful. You and Stephen Batchelor seem to be of like mind.

    I should say that this is my first comment on your blog although I have been following it for some time. Alot of what you have said previously I strongly agree with. Its good to know there are people of like mind out there even if we are a long way apart (Bristol, UK in my case).

    1. Hi John: Stephen and I went through the Tibetan Gelukpa tradition in the same time and place, at Tharpa Choeling (now Rabten Choeling) in Switzerland. He had a head start on me, and though a couple of years my junior was my first teacher of Tibetan and the only other senior monk I could relate to. Yes we’re very much of like mind, though he took a scholarly path and I an experimental one. As for philosophical chit-chat, Buddhism does tend to attract intellectual ramblers, mostly well-meaning. And I’m not so far away in spirit. I’m now geographically distant but grew up in Gloucester and was schooled in Cheltenham, not thirty miles from you. Thereto my heart is ever drawn.

  7. “Mahāli the Licchavi nobleman, asks the Buddha to confirm that, ‘life is suffering.’ ”

    I haven’t decided whether to buy the book yet or not, but if Batchelor actually presents Mahāli as asking that specific question, I’m going to have lost enough confidence in his arguments to perhaps skip it. I am presently working on a paper that makes some arguments about this “Life is suffering” statement and I’d have been glad if Mahāli actually did ask the question. But having, just now, gone through every sutta he appears in the closest I get is SN 22.60, and though the answer matches well enough, the question isn’t. I suppose that wouldn’t be a big deal to most readers though, only terrible sticklers like me.

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.060.than.html

    1. It certainly isn’t a big deal to me Linda. SN22.60 is verbose at the best of times, and changes flavor dramatically from one translator to another, and from one reading to another. Batchelor’s strength lies in his willingness to interpret through thoroughly 21st century eyes. Some call this reckless. I call it honest. Approaching the canon as immutable truth makes it indigestible and useless. We have to ask, what lies behind the words of these two men who spoke twenty-six hundred years ago, and how can it possibly matter to us?

  8. Thanks for the heads up on Stephen Batchelor’s new book — I always glean surprising gems whenever I read his portrayal of the unraveling of The Buddha’s dispensation. I really enjoy the process of teasing out the cultural accretions that have accumulated over 26 centuries especially the defanging of Indian hyperbole that permeates through out Indian spiritual thought.

    I am so glad that there are some people from my culture who immersed themselves in Theravadan, Tibeten and Mahayana Buddhism in order to pierce the “heart of the matter” so that they may taste what The Buddha was pointing to — and then risking being ridiculed from the Buddhist experts’ by “shaking the boat” to give voice to their experience.

    As far as the notion of The Buddha saying “Life is Suffering”, that’s NOT the way I heard it…it is a very crucial point — that by misunderstanding this passage —then it closes down other venues of discovery.
    “There is Dukkha” – and it should be fully investigated……?

    1. Yes indeed Richard. “There is dukkha” is a far cry from “Life is suffering.”

      Whether Mahāli actually questioned it or not is of little consequence. What’s important is that people were spinning it that way even back then in Buddha’s day. What does that say about human life and our attempt to understand it?

  9. Great review Stephen. I love Bachelor’s work especially his agnosticism about reincarnation. Batchelor can match it with intellectual heavyweights like Robert Thurman and still respectfully hold a rebellious position as I believe is Buddha’s original intent toward all doctrine or intellectual certainty.

    I strongly endorse questioning the 1st noble truth and especially the translation of Dukkha. It is vitally important. For me Dukkha means dissatisfaction and all experience, despite being pleasurable are dissatisfying – meaning they cannot allow any lasting fulfillment. Realising this brings peace and an end to Dukkha. Ironically satisfied with the temporary nature of all things including the contingent nature of any intellectual position. Totally realistic rather than metaphysical.

    However does this peace imply a naturally abiding happiness that is always present when the desiring the unattainable is removed? Which could perhaps be called a metaphysical type of transcendental peace?

    Anyway looking forward to reading this book. I’m a big fan of both Stephens 🙂

    1. Thanks Chad. I must say, your comparison of Batchelor and Thurman is unexpected. Thurman’s scholarship amounts to advocacy for Tibetan Buddhism rather than an academic exploration of Buddhist theory and practice. I’ll shortly be posting a podcast interview with Thurman, which you might find interesting. As for the ‘noble truths,’ Batchelor argues that they’re not truths at all but things to do. That part of his book is not just radical, it’s also really useful. His interpretation is entirely pragmatic, which I think is what resonates so well with the times.

  10. Perhaps Mr. Batchelor is the true follower of the Buddha’s teachings in that he is embodying ” … lamps unto yourselves. ” The orthodox community has been brainwashed into drinking the Kool-Aid. Didn’t the Buddha beg his followers not to turn his teaching into a religion ?

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