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.