Western Buddhist Review

‘Does It Float?’: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism

On Sat, 5 October, 2019 - 17:10
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Here we present a review of Stephen Batchelor’s two most recent books on his secular interpretation of the Dharma:

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2015

Stephen Batchelor, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, Yale University Press, 2017

Review by Dhivan

Yale University Press were kind enough to send me review copies of Stephen Batchelor’s books when they were published. But reviewing them is difficult, as they are polemical, in favour of a particular new interpretation of Buddhism over undesirable forms of traditional Buddhism. In the end I’ve decided to comment just on the argument for secular Buddhism made in these books, independent of my response to the idea. Stephen Batchelor is something of a hero of mine: a pioneer of existentialist Buddhism,[1] and a prophet of Buddhism without belief in karma and rebirth. I enjoyed interviewing him in 2004, about his book Living With the Devil, which I still believe marks an important new interpretation of the meaning of Māra, the Buddhist version of the devil.[2] But I was not so enthusiastic about the part of his 2010 book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, which attempted to rediscover the teaching of the historical Buddha. His Pāli scholarship seemed at times dubious and his arguments occasionally tendentious.[3]

Closely reading After Buddhism, his 2010 follow-up to Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, I am once again troubled by his at times dubious Pāli scholarship. But then, in Secular Buddhism, his 2015 collection of essays, I read (p.17) how he himself admits his Pāli is not very good. He recalls (pp.17–18) his reading of the early Buddhist discourse, the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, in which the newly-awakened Buddha is reported to have doubted the point of teaching the Dharma, for

people love their place [ālaya]: they delight and revel in their place. It is hard for people who love, delight and revel in their place to see this ground [ṭhāna]: “because-of-this” conditionality [idappaccayatā], conditioned arising [paṭicca-samuppāda].[4]

This passage becomes important for Batchelor’s own formulation of the Buddha’s awakening in terms of its being an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight into the nature of reality. But Batchelor then admits (p.19) how a friendly critic had pointed out that ālaya doesn’t mean ‘place’ but ‘attachment’, and how ṭhāna doesn’t mean ‘ground’ but ‘fact’ or ‘state’.[5] Batchelor then muses about whether his translation is an example of incompetent scholarship or a creative mistake.

With this in mind, it hardly seems necessary for me to go through After Buddhism, pointing out all the Pāli mistakes. It suffices to say that Stephen Batchelor admits his Pāli is a bit rough and ready. This is not a great start for someone who wants to ‘recover the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies’ (p.28). In fact, it leads to my first observation on the project in these two books of developing a ‘secular Buddhism’: that this ought not be described as a recovery of the original meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, but rather as an interpretation of the Dharma for the modern world. Following good practice from Biblical studies, one should distinguish exegesis from interpretation. To say that the Buddha’s awakening should be understood as an existential shift in perspective rather than a mystical insight is an interpretation (of the Dharma for the modern west), whereas to explain what ālaya means, and what it means for people to love their ālaya, is exegesis.[6]

His translations of ālaya and ṭhāna aside, Batchelor comes up with some lovely new interpretations of early Buddhist terms and concepts. For instance, he renders taṇhā as ‘reactivity’ (After Buddhism, p.74). An exegesis of the word taṅhā would have to say that, etymologically, it meant ‘thirst’, the Sanskrit equivalent tṛṣṇā being derived from the verbal root tṛṣ, ‘be thirsty’; though in use it means a self-centred ‘craving’ or ‘desire’. But in practice the word is used in Buddhist psychology to indicate the tendency of the mind to react with self-centred craving, which is at the root of our continued existence in saṃsāra. Hence ‘reactivity’ is a nice interpretation of the word in modern English, that gets into western concepts some of what it means as a Buddhist technical term. Likewise, his rendering of appamāda as ‘care’ (After Buddhism, p.102), instead of the usual ‘heedfulness’, manages to capture a technical term in just the right English word. 

Generally, though, I would say that Batchelor is not the best exegete of Pāli texts, partly because his Pāli is not very good, but mostly because his purpose really is to argue for a new interpretation of early Buddhism, and he confuses interpretation with exegesis. This is apparent in what has become the signature teaching of his secular Buddhism, the ‘four tasks’. These are a re-casting of the four noble truths (dukkha, ‘suffering’; samudaya, ‘arising’; nirodha, ‘cessation’; and magga, ‘path’) as four ‘tasks’ (that suffering is to be comprehended; arising is to be let go of; ceasing is to be beheld; and the path is to be cultivated) (After Buddhism p.69; Secular Buddhism, p.94). The tasks come out in fully secular form as: Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act! (After Buddhism, p.70). Batchelor derives support for his interpretation from an article by K.R. Norman;[7] but this article is an example of scholarly exegesis, which clarifies some difficult Pāli syntax by suggesting a particular account of how the discourse evolved. One might add that the ‘four tasks’ are right there in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma’, traditionally regarded as the first sermon.[8] The Buddha presents each of the four in terms of a ‘task’ (kicca), meaning, ‘what is to be done’. Suffering is ‘to be comprehended’ (pariññeyya), its arising is ‘to be let go of’ (pahātabba), its cessation is ‘to be beheld’ (sacchikātabba), and the path to its ceasing is ‘to be cultivated’ (bhāvitabba).[9] So the ‘four tasks’ are, to my mind, simply a way of drawing attention to how the Buddha is said to have presented the truths as tasks.  

What I find puzzling about Batchelor’s project here is his rejection (Secular Buddhism, pp.95–6) of the idea that the four truths represent the Buddha’s appropriation of a medical formula. It is in fact quite likely that the four truths represent a version of an ancient Indian medical diagnostic formula, in which dukkha, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, is the disease; the arising of dukkha is the pathogen, namely, taṇhā, ‘reactivity’; the state of health is the cessation of dukkha; and the cure is the eightfold path.[10] Certainly, the Buddha is often compared in early discourses to a skilful physician. Therefore, from the very beginning, the Dharma was presented in non-religious, this-worldly, secular terms, as a practical teaching, namely, as what are called the four noble truths. It only takes some exegesis to make this clear; interpretation is not particularly necessary.

However, Batchelor is determined to develop what (in Secular Buddhism, p.80) he calls ‘Buddhism 2.0’, a form of Buddhism that would present the Dharma not just in an updated traditional form, but in a new way that overcomes the cultural divide separating modern western practitioners from their Asian forebears. Let us grant Batchelor that such an updated Buddhism is desirable; and it is certainly part of the vision of the Triratna Buddhist movement, in which I practise, to develop such a Buddhism in this way. But why then does Batchelor so often try to develop Buddhism 2.0 through a comparison with sheer caricatures of traditional Buddhism? In this sense, the argument of After Buddhism is seriously compromised by the fallacy of false dilemma. This means arguing by presenting a choice between ‘my way’ and the Buddhist ‘highway’, and presenting the highway as a send-up of dogmatic metaphysical claims, concluding falsely that ‘my way’ must be right.

For instance, in After Buddhism (p.8), Batchelor characterises the Buddha’s teaching of emptiness (suññatā in Pāli) as ‘a condition in which we [he means advanced practitioners] dwell’; ‘emptiness discloses the dignity of a person who has realized what it means to be fully human’. He then contrasts this understanding of emptiness with that of the later philosophy of Mādhyamika, in which emptiness is ‘an ultimate truth that needs to be understood through logical inference’ and ‘a privileged epistemological object that, through knowing, one gains a cognitive enlightenment’. So, the Buddhist understanding of emptiness is either the Buddha’s original teaching, or the later Mādhyamika version; the latter is evidently merely a conceptual attainment, therefore we should go with the Buddha’s original teaching. But anyone who has studied anything about Mādhyamika knows that Batchelor’s account of emptiness here is a mere caricature. Indeed, Batchelor himself must know that he what he has written is mere caricature, as he has himself translated Nāgārjuna’s foundational work on Mādhyamika, the Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā.[11] Anyone who studies this work knows that ‘Misperceiving emptiness / Injures the unintelligent / Like mishandling a snake / Or miscasting a spell.’[12]

Then again, he quotes from the Udāna, a collection of discourses in the Pāli canon, one of which he cites in translation: ‘There is, monks, an Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Uncompounded’ and so on. He comments: ‘This ex-cathedra declaration of a transcendent reality lying beyond the conditioned world sits uncomfortably with the suspension of judgement and suspicion of ultimacy advocated elsewhere in the same body of texts’ (p.25). But this is a tendentious exegesis of a Pāli text, for the sake of his interpretation of it as dogmatic etc., in comparison with the more sceptical texts he prefers. Later (pp.137–49) he explains how the problem is the translation (by Maurice Walshe), and that the passage can be translated in ways that have less ‘ontological gravity’. But this is a translation issue, not a problem with religious Buddhism or even with a metaphysical claims. 

Then again he tries to show up the dogmatic nature of religious Buddhism by claiming that ‘later Buddhists’ proposed a form of atomism (p.189) and that ‘Buddhist proponents of rebirth’ proposed that mind is a substance (dravya) (p.300). Atomism and substantialism are evidently supposed to make these later Buddhists sound like traitors to the sceptical, anti-metaphysical kind of Buddhism that Batchelor, quite reasonably, wants to argue is the Buddha’s original teaching. Again, this is false dilemma: the Buddhist Abhidharmikas may not have been sceptics but they used the concepts of atomism and subtance in highly specialised Buddhist ways, in relation to Indian philosophical concerns of their time. They would not have had much trouble in countering his arguments.

In Secular Buddhism (p.107), Batchelor evokes the famous parable of the raft. The Buddha describes someone who builds a raft to cross a river in their path: would it be wise to continue on their way, having crossed over, by putting the raft on their head?[13] Developing the comparison, Batchelor argues that there is no need to ask of Buddhism 2.0, ‘is it really Buddhism?’: ‘The only relevant question is “Does it float?”’. If we understand Buddhism 2.0 here simply in terms of the body of ideas that Batchelor has developed in his recent books, one would have to say that, although it has some lovely design features, and many of us wish it well on its voyage, it is unfortunately made of poor quality scholarship and is lashed up with false arguments. 

Dhivan is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review. He is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and lectures in philosophy and Indian religions at the University of Chester.

[1] Especially in Alone With Others (1983), Flight: An Existential Conception of Buddhism (1984), and The Faith to Doubt (1990).

[2] See Dharma Life magazine, 2004; reprinted in Challenging Times, ed. Vishvapani, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2012.

[3] Reviewed in Western Buddhist Review 6, available online at https://bit.ly/320BoMZ

[4] First discussed in After Buddhism p.55, in ch.3 A Fourfold Task, in which he presents what has become his single most important ‘secular Buddhist’ teaching. The passage is from the Ariyapariyesā Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 26. 

[5] I would also point out that idappaccayatā doesn’t mean ‘“because-of-this” conditionality’, but ‘the state of having this as condition’, i.e. it just means ‘conditionality’ in the peculiar Buddhist sense.

[6] In Secular Buddhism, p.81, Batchelor explains that his account of ‘Buddhism 2.0’, with its four tasks, is an interpretation; but he also admits he is easily ‘seduced’ by the idea that it is ‘what the Buddha originally taught’. 

[7] K.R. Norman (2003), ‘The Four Noble Truths’, Collected Papers II, Oxford: PTS, pp.210–23, online at https://bit.ly/2Lps3bA

[8] It can be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya at 56: 11.

[9] Batchelor consistently (After Buddhism p.69, Secular Buddhism pp.94–5) gets the Pāli wrong: these four things ‘to be done’ (kicca) are in the grammatical form of gerundives, whereas he cites nominal forms.

[10] See Anālayo (2016), Mindfully Facing Disease and Death, Cambridge: Windhorse, pp.9–11.

[11] Stephen Batchelor (2000), Verses from the Center, New York: Riverhead.

[12] Verses from the Center, p.123. Batchelor’s rendering of the (Tibetan version of the) Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā is poetic rather than philosophical.

[13] The parable is from the Alaggadūpama Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 18.

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Responses

Ratnagarbha's picture

Thank you for an interesting review. In relation to to the contrast between exegesis and interpretation I was reminded of a fascinating series of lectures I listened to recently about the texts of early Christianity by Prof Dale b Martin of Yale. He made a three-way distinction between interpretation i.e. theology in Christian terms, exegesis, and lastly historical reconstruction. Such things as trying to reconstruct what the historical Jesus might actually have thought and said, by means of critical comparison of all of the available texts and the various methods of modern historical scholarship. It sounds as if Batchelor has as muddied the waters by mixing all three of these together. Not only does he turn his exegesis into an interpretation for the modern world. His attempted exegesis is in turn a conflation of on the one hand ideas about what the Pali texts may have meant to those who recited them, with on the other hand attempting to reconstruct some kind of pure original Buddhism that the Buddha might have taught.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Thanks Ratnagarbha for mentioning this very interesting three-way distinction. I think you’re right, that Batchelor mixes up exegesis, interpretation and historical reconstruction. Perhaps they overlap to some extent. I must listen to those talks by Prof Dale Martin!