Probably the most prominent proponent of “Secular Buddhism,” writer, artist, and lay scholar Stephen Batchelor has been a contributor to Tricycle since its third issue (Spring 1992). His latest book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (2015), represents the culmination of four decades of Buddhist study and practice in the Tibetan, Son (Korean Zen), and early Pali Buddhist traditions. “While many Asians are Buddhists who find themselves being secularized,” Batchelor writes, “I am a secular European in the process of finding out what it means to be Buddhist.”
Batchelor’s earlier works, perhaps most notably the bestselling and controversial Buddhism Without Beliefs(Riverhead/Tricycle, 1997), did much to lay the groundwork for the secular Buddhist movement that would later emerge. Today, Batchelor is cofounder of the newly established Bodhi Institute in the UK, which offers “early Buddhist teachings for a secular age.” In April, Batchelor sat down with Tricycle editor and publisher James Shaheen in New York City to discuss his new book.
Why “After Buddhism”? As an impermanent and contingent phenomenon, Buddhism will inevitably be transformed through its interactions with modernity. Exactly what shape it will assume is impossible to know. All we can say with confidence is that what will come after Buddhism will remain tied to it as well. But will it still be Buddhism as we understand it now? I don’t know.
Since a key part of my argument is a call to return to the earliest sources of Gotama’s teaching, I could just as well have called this book “Before Buddhism.” Several readers of the manuscript have in fact suggested this.
The book’s title also acknowledges my debt to a number of similar works: After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre, After God, by Don Cupitt, and After Christianity, by Gianni Vattimo. “After” does not imply that these authors have abandoned virtue, God, or Christianity any more than I have abandoned Buddhism. Rather, “after” signals a radical revisioning of what these terms mean today.
After Buddhism continues an inquiry that I’ve been pursuing for many years. I try to divest the Buddhist teachings of the layers of doctrinal and cultural accretion that have built up over the last two and a half thousand years. Our culture is at such a distance from that of ancient India that we may no longer be in a position simply to adapt a particular orthodoxy by giving it a new spin for our times. The challenge may be more fundamental than that. We might need to strip Buddhism back to its bare skeletal form and begin again.
How possible is it to do that when we are, as you say, so distanced from it in time? I realize that this is a difficult, even presumptuous undertaking. A very easy criticism of this book will sound something like this: “Well, this is just what Batchelor likes about Buddhism, and so he finds these pieces and then claims them to be original.” That would be a perfectly valid objection if I were simply highlighting my preferences. But I do actually have a hermeneutic strategy.
Which is? When you read a text in the Pali canon or other comparable sources, if something said there by the Buddha could just as well have been said by a Jain or Brahmin priest, then you put that aside as simply part of the broadly accepted worldview of that period. It’s not something unique to the Buddha’s dharma. By pursuing this process of subtraction, you can start to separate out the generic cosmology and metaphysics of the time. What remains left over can then be considered as what made the Buddha’s teaching so distinctive. And that would be my starting point.
What do you identify as distinctive? I identify four primary themes: the principle of conditionality; the practice of the fourfold tasks; the perspective of mindful awareness; and the power of self-reliance. I call them the four P’s. The book teases out of these four themes what hopefully is a comprehensive account both of the dharma and of the Buddha’s life.
The language you use for fundamental Buddhist terms and concepts is often a radical departure from convention. The four noble truths become “the four tasks”; nirvana becomes “a nonreactive ethical space”; dukkha, typically translated as “suffering,” simply becomes “life.” And tanha—craving—becomes “reactivity.” In many cases, your translations are more interpretive than literal. As the cliché goes: translation is always interpretation. The meaning of words, as Wittgenstein pointed out, has to do with how they are used more than how the dictionary defines them. I may choose a term that might not be literally so close to the original but could actually shed more light on how that term operates within the framework of the discourses.
In the case of the four noble truths—what you call the four tasks—the departure is especially jarring. Can you explain? If you open any book that purports to explain Buddhism, within two or three pages you’re onto the four noble truths. So to start questioning them is clearly controversial— even audacious. But on the basis of philological analysis, earlier translators—F. L. Woodward, for example, then people like Kenneth R. Norman—have spotted troubling incongruities in the way the expression “noble truth” is used. For instance, the Buddha’s first discourse literally says, “The second noble truth is to be abandoned.” Now that doesn’t make any sense. You don’t abandon the second noble truth; you abandon craving. It’s equally problematic to say, “The fourth noble truth is to be cultivated.” How do you cultivate a noble truth? Would that make it more true? Or more noble? Or both? It seems that at a later date the expression “noble truth” was rather clumsily introduced into the text. Now, that comes as a bit of a revelation, frankly, and a rather disturbing one. Norman concludes his analysis by saying: “The earliest form of [the Buddha’s first] discourse did not include the words ‘noble truth.’” That’s equivalent to saying: “In the original teaching the doctrine that people associate most fundamentally with Buddhism simply wasn’t there.”
Another example is the use of the word “truth” itself. I’m not suggesting the Buddha didn’t use the word. He did. But apart from in the expression “four noble truths,” the word “truth” in most cases refers to the virtue of speaking truthfully, being honest, having integrity in one’s life. We find this usage in the Ashokan edicts as well as in the Theravada doctrine of the perfections, one of which is sacca-parami: the perfection of truth. Here the word “truth” doesn’t refer to truth as a synonym for “reality,” it refers to truth as a virtue of speech. This supports my hypothesis that Buddhism did not start out as a truth-based metaphysics. In other words, to be awakened does not mean to understand the truth or nature of reality, which then frees you from ignorance, leaving you awakened. It may be more accurate to think of truth as truthfulness, or living a truthful life. It means to live in a certain way rather than to gain access to a privileged knowledge. So “four tasks,” as opposed to “four truths,” seem to me more appropriate. Truth is an act to be performed, not a fact to be known.
And the notion of ultimate and conventional truth? The famous doctrine of the two truths—conventional truth and ultimate truth—is not mentioned a single time in the early discourses. Yet it has become central to all forms of Buddhism that we know today. The first mention of the two truths appears to be in a text in the Abhidhamma called the Kathavatthu. Yet in one of the earliest canonical texts, the Atthakavagga, the Buddha is actually dismissive of those who claim to know the truth: “I do not say ‘this is true,’ which is what fools say to each other. They make out their own way to be true, therefore they regard their opponent as a fool.”
Yet the Buddha does get polemical when he debunks competing schools. Wouldn’t you consider, say, the truth of impermanence to be, well, a truth statement? It’s very tempting to say the Buddha rejects all other views and that his view is the correct one. You could, on the basis of the Brahmajala Sutta, in which the Buddha argues against prevailing views of the time, arrive at that conclusion, but that would be contradicted, particularly in texts like the Atthakavagga.
I don’t see why a dogmatic opinion, just because it is claimed to be Buddhist, has any particular advantage over any other such opinion. Consider the 14 questions in the Majjhima Nikaya that the Buddha refuses to answer: Is the world eternal or not? Is the soul identical with the body or not? Does the Tathagata [epithet for the Buddha] exist after death? And so on. These are all dogmatic propositions. And it’s not that there are only 14 such propositions; the ones he lists are simply examples of a particular style of thinking that one needs to avoid if one wants to practice the dharma. Otherwise, one could easily slip into the trap of thinking that the aim of the dharma is to arrive at a correct set of opinions about the nature of reality. Buddhism certainly has invested a lot of energy in doing that, but I think it actually runs against the spirit of his refusal to even get drawn into a discussion about such things. In another verse in the Atthakavagga, the Buddha says, “Wrongminded people voice opinions and truth-minded people voice opinions too.” But when an opinion is uttered, he concludes, “The sage is not drawn in.” Now that’s found in a text the antiquity of which is accepted by Buddhist and modern scholars alike. But it flies in the face of a great deal of what has come to be accepted Buddhist orthodoxy.
Related: Dropping the Bodhisattva Gods
Do you see belief playing any role in Buddhist practice? Well, I think you first need to differentiate between what we might call Belief with a big B and belief with a little b. “Big B” beliefs assent to certain metaphysical dogmas, like “Craving is the origin of suffering.” This is not something you can conclusively either prove or disprove; it may be supported by certain experiences but it is ultimately a matter of faith. You’re staking a metaphysical claim for yourself. Belief with a small b, on the other hand, is more like a working hypothesis. In that sense, it’s a more scientific approach: “Maybe we could look at the world this way. Let’s see if it would be useful to consider it from this angle.” The question is not “Is this true?” so much as “Does this enable the lives of oneself and others to flourish more fully?”
We can think of this in terms of the American Pragmatic tradition, which also rejects the traditional notion of truth as “correspondence.” From William James on, pragmatists have understood truth not in terms of statements that correspond to the nature of reality but in terms of whether or not they lead to greater benefit in the quality of life. For example, “conditioned things are impermanent.” That’s a working hypothesis. Does it actually improve and enhance the quality of my life to train myself to see things that way as opposed to looking for something permanent? Does it loosen me up? Does it free me from restrictive attachments and fears that block the creative flourishing of life? Does it enable me to become a more ethical, compassionate, and wise person?
You write that at some point Buddhist schools seemed to have veered away from the original teachings. Can you say something about that? I personally believe that is the case. Like any living tradition, Buddhism has to survive in a particular milieu. And Buddhism had to survive in the milieu of competing religious truth claims coming from the Brahmins, Jains, and others, and it adjusted itself accordingly. It may have seemed at the time to be an entirely natural and necessary development. And it could well have been that figures or ideas in the early community were already inclining that way anyway.
Yet you identify in the early Chan tradition a very different impulse. What the Chan (Zen/Son) tradition did was to reject the complex metaphysics that had built up over the centuries in Buddhist thought. It returned to the primacy of responding to the core questions of life itself. So when you read Linji [Japanese, Rinzai, d. 867], for example, you find him saying things that are far more provocative and outrageous than anything in my mildmannered prose. In the course of writing this book, I became aware of the great extent to which I am indebted to the Chan approach—and particularly the Son form that I learned in Korea. It’s far more about a provocation to question deeply what this life is about and to notice the ways in which we keep ourselves stuck in certain views and opinions. Orthodox Buddhism is treated very harshly in some of these texts.
Yet when we read these statements today, because they’re Chan records, we treat them with an awed reverence, which we wouldn’t accord similar statements not endorsed by centuries of tradition. But you have to note their incredibly radical nature. You’ll find this also in the writings of the mahasiddhas, the founders of the Vajrayana tradition. Tilopa, for example, uses exactly the same sort of shock tactics as the Chan masters.
Buddhist tradition has undergone many periods of ossification. It then reaches a point where the tension is just too great to sustain any longer and it snaps. These moments go on to produce figures such as Linji and Tilopa. I suspect we may be at a comparable phase in the emergence of Buddhism for our time, where some sort of rupture seems to be in the offing.
Early in the book you mention that you are running the risk of arrogance . . . That’s right. I fully understand this risk. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night feeling very anxious about what I’m doing.
You mention that earlier schools were “wearing glasses” when they interpreted the teachings. You acknowledge that you’re wearing glasses, too. You describe yourself as a “white European male from Scotland, living in a village near Bordeaux, a middle-class intellectual writer and teacher, liberal and green in politics, a secular Buddhist who spends a lot of time narrating, editing, and worrying about the story in my head.” [Laughs.]
To what extent, say, has Protestant culture likewise shaped your understanding of the canon? I fully admit that my reading of Buddhism is informed by the Protestant tradition. We often forget that the word Protestant comes from the word protest. Martin Luther, for example, got to a point where he could no longer tolerate the institutions and the dogmas of the Catholic Church. He saw it full of corruption—you know, the selling of indulgences and all these things—the commercialization, the commodification, the excessive power of the priest as an intercessionary between you and God. Nagarjuna, Linji, Tilopa—these are all Luthertype figures. They belong to a lineage of protest against rigidification, institutionalization, and dogma. Something I perhaps don’t develop enough in After Buddhism is the idea that every claim to truth is also a claim to power. If I claim that my teacher has access to ultimate truth in a direct, nonconceptual way, then that is not just a neutral description of that person’s knowledge. It’s also what gives that person authority over others. As Francis Bacon is reputed to have said, “Knowledge is power.” In other words, a critique of certain orthodox ideas is implicitly a critique of certain structures of power. I admit that that’s what I’m doing. It’s what Luther did and Linji did. In both cases, they are saying: “Look, we need to recover the ordinary person’s unmediated relationship with the core questions and values of their life.”
You do focus on ordinary, sometimes marginal, figures from the canon in your book. Yes. By focusing on nonordained “laypeople” in the early discourses, I’m trying to shift the emphasis away from the detached, celibate arahant, who has become the ideal of perfection that every good Buddhist should emulate. There is evidence in these early texts to show that it wasn’t just the monks who were getting enlightened. It wasn’t just the monks who were doing the teaching. It wasn’t just the monks who were doing the practice.
Why is the historicity of the Buddha’s story important to you? Why does there need to be a factual basis to your reading, and why do you emphasize it? I would find it very difficult to relate to this tradition if I believed that the story of Gotama was just a devout fiction concocted long after the Buddha’s death. Of course, you could argue that if the dharma is a practice to transform and improve the quality of your life and lead you to awakening, then what does it matter if the Buddha really existed or not?
Yet as a practitioner, I find that these texts, for me, serve as a partner in an ongoing conversation. I don’t consider them coldly and objectively but rather value them in terms of how they speak to my condition today. I find that the voice I listen to has more authority if it comes from a figure who walked on this earth rather than simply being a voice that’s put in the mouth of someone who could just as well be a character in a novel.
You write that you require of the Buddha that he be more than a mere cypher—he’s a person who must navigate his world much like anyone else. Yet you also require that he be more than merely human. What do you mean? If you reduce the Buddha to a person who’s basically not much different from you or me, then he ceases to function as a figure who embodies our aspirations. The power of the Buddha’s teaching is that he has overcome a great deal of what causes us, as fallible humans, to feel limited, constrained, unfulfilled, and stuck. The whole metaphor of freedom— liberation—implies that the voice we hear in these texts is one that’s coming from a place that is no longer locked into the inertia of habit. On the other hand, if you make the Buddha too perfect, you lose his humanity. I think this is what has happened in most Buddhist traditions. The Buddha has become impossibly perfect and remote. He no longer functions as a model on which one might realistically base one’s own aspirations in life.
I think it’s fair to say you’re a central figure—if not the central figure—in the Secular Buddhism movement. Can you define Secular Buddhism? Well, I think it’s a Buddhism that is primarily concerned with two things: the personal and collective suffering of this world or this age (saeculum), and the means to respond fully to such suffering. That doesn’t mean that it is only concerned with our selfish interests here and now. That would be a misreading. Because, frankly, the only thing about which we have certainty is that life—human and all other forms—has emerged on this little planet. This might be the only shot beings will ever have, and considering climate change and other challenges, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the fragile and tentative nature of such life. Secular Buddhists maintain that this should be the sole focus of our wisdom and compassion. They are agnostic about supernatural truth claims. The challenge is to find ways to respond to the suffering of this world, both now and in terms of how we leave it for those who follow us after our death. That, to me, is an entirely adequate frame for a complete commitment to a way of life founded on the dharma and dedicated to all living beings. In a nutshell, this is how I would see the ethos of Secular Buddhism.
This book seems to be a culmination of 40 years of writing about the dharma. Do you see your writing as a practice? I see my writing as a running commentary to my ongoing inquiry into what the dharma is about. And not only what it’s about in an abstract sense, but what it’s about for people living in today’s world. In that sense I find writing to be a practice, and the books are the product of that practice. It’s only in retrospect, having completed this book, that I can see how it joins together threads that I’ve been following for a long time. With the completion of each book, I have come to trust that it will lead me to whatever project follows next. But I have no grand plan that aspires to some final outcome. What I have found to be different with After Buddhism is that when I finally got to the end I realized that I couldn’t encompass it all in my mind. It was as though I’d written something that exceeded my capacity to grasp what it was about. That feeling still persists; it is a very strange sensation.
Join Stephen and Martine Batchelor in Secular Dharma, a six-week online course which lays out a new vision for understanding and practicing dharma in the contemporary world.
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