The first Buddhist meditation I practiced entailed visualizing a seated figure of Shakyamuni Buddha on a bejeweled throne in the space before me. To his right was Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, to his left Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, while in front of his throne stood the wrathful figure of Vajrapani, the bodhisattva of power. After creating this image, I was instructed to recite the mantras of these figures while imagining beams of light and nectar emanating from their hearts and entering mine.

For the Tibetan lamas who taught me this practice, these visualized figures were not understood as mere symbols or archetypes. Despite being “empty of inherent existence,” they were regarded as possessing both an agency that was independent of mine as well as the power to intervene in human affairs by granting blessings and answering prayers. In other words, they functioned as gods, which happens to be the very term (hla) by which they are known in Tibetan. In Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to be “empty of inherent existence” is the ultimate nature of all things. Gods, therefore, are no different from humans in terms of how they operate as agents in the conventional or relative world.

Related: Why I Quit Guru Yoga 

As hard as I tried over the years, I found it very difficult to “speak” with these Buddhas and bodhisattvas as though they were quasi-persons with agency. I could not dispel a gnawing suspicion of bad faith when, in the course of reciting a tantric sadhana like the one described above, I heard myself requesting insights or blessings from them. To interpret these figures as symbols or archetypes only made matters worse. For the idea of conducting a meaningful conversation with a symbol struck me as even more absurd. In the end, while still a Tibetan Buddhist monk, I abandoned these practices altogether. And it was around this time that I first came across the work of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72).

Feuerbach was a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist, and atheist view of the world. He is perhaps best known for serving as a bridge between the ideas of Hegel and those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Trained as a theologian, he launched a critique against religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. “Religion,” he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841), “is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or in the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth.” Feuerbach argued that the function of religion was to project the essential human qualities of reason, love, and will onto the nonhuman and transcendent figure of God, who then becomes an object of worship. As a result of this transference: “In proportion as God becomes more ideally human, the greater becomes the apparent difference between God and man. To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must become nothing.” Since God is merely “the projected essence of man,” if people are to recover their true humanity, Feuerbach maintains that they need to reclaim their essential nature from the God onto whom they have projected it. In the words of Karl Marx: “[Feuerbach’s] work consists in the dissolution of the religious world into its secular basis . . . Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human.”

Related: The Myth of the Historical Buddha 

While an echo of Buddhism may be detected in his phrase “in the realm of Nothingness,” the primary target of Feuerbach’s critique was Christianity. The visualization practice that I described above, however, fits Feuerbach’s thesis to the letter. As the dharma evolved into another Indian religion, Gotama [the historical Buddha’s name] lost his humanity and turned into the godlike figure of Shakyamuni Buddha. At the same time, the human qualities of reason, love, and will were projected, respectively, onto the godlike bodhisattvas Manjusri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani. The practitioner thus finds herself supplicating these “gods” to grant her in the form of blessings the very qualities she gave away to them in the first place. In both theism and Buddhism, as the tradition crystallizes into orthodoxies and hierarchical institutions, a similar gap opens up between the ordinary person and her essential humanity. By the time of Shantideva, Buddhism had come to function as a polytheistic religion. The Bodhicaryavatara [the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, a central Mahayana Buddhist text written by Shantideva around 700 CE] includes confession of sins, threats of hellish punishment, and supplicatory prayers such as this one:

To the Guardian Avalokiteshvara
Who infallibly acts with compassion,
I utter a mournful cry:
“Please protect this evil doer!”

By reflecting on how one is always “in the presence of Buddhas and bodhisattvas endowed with unobstructed vision,” one is encouraged to “develop a sense of shame, respect and fear.” Shantideva’s world is a far cry from that of Gotama’s. These kinds of practices are unimaginable in the discourses of the Pali Canon. Gotama’s ironic atheism and emphasis on self-reliance have given way to the kind of devotion and dependency that Feuerbach regards as the essence of religious behavior. This process waxes and wanes over time. Feuerbach approvingly quotes Augustine as saying, “God is nearer, more closely related to us, and therefore more easily known by us than sensible corporeal things.” Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther likewise understood the experience of God to be a profoundly intimate one. In Buddhism this emphasis is even more explicit since the aim of the practice is for each person to become fully awakened. Yet the history of both traditions is marked by critical moments when the gap between the ordinary person and her religious ideal becomes so vast that it can no longer be sustained. There then follows a collapse of the old order, which allows the possibility of something new being born. A good example of this in Buddhism occurs with the emergence of Chan (Zen) in China, where we find teachers such as Mazu Daoyi (709–88) repeatedly insisting that the Buddha is nothing other than one’s own mind.

Related: Tibetan Buddhist Meditation 

No matter how radical the reform of a religious tradition, over time the new and vibrant school tends to coalesce into yet another orthodoxy and hierarchic institution. As power becomes concentrated into the hands of an elite body of priests, the gap between the unenlightened and the enlightened starts opening up again, thus repeating the old pattern of disempowerment and alienation. Whenever a religion becomes an instrument of state power, thereby further enhancing the authority of its priests, it becomes even more difficult to challenge its dogmas, particularly if they become enshrined in law.

An established religion exercises its power most keenly by controlling the interpretation of its canonical texts. In religious studies departments of universities today a similar role is assumed by experts who decree what the languages and doctrines of a particular religion “really” mean. Those with a vested interest in preserving the correct interpretation of texts cannot tolerate the idea that “ordinary” people might enter into a living dialogue with the authors of those texts. They will actively discourage them by emphasizing the difficulty of such writings and the need for arduous study to acquire the linguistic and interpretive tools required to understand them correctly. There is some legitimacy to this concern, but it can be used illegitimately to justify a blanket condemnation of any attempt to question orthodox beliefs.

A Feuerbachian approach to Buddhism would entail a recovery of the historical Gotama as a human conversation partner as well as an uncompromisingly secular reading of his teaching. Discarding all elements of supernaturalism and magical thinking, one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human. Rather than devoutly repeating what has been said many times before, you risk expressing your understanding in your own stammering voice.

From Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World by Stephen Batchelor. Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press.  

Continue studying with Stephen and Martine Batchelor in Secular Dharma, a six-week online course exploring their vision for understanding and practicing dharma in the contemporary world.

[This story was first published in 2017

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