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An Open Letter To B. Alan Wallace
By Stephen Batchelor
I have read your piece “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist,” which appeared in the previous issue of Mandala. While I recognize that some of what I say conflicts with Buddhist orthodoxy, I do not believe that I am distorting the message of Siddhattha Gotama. I am offering an interpretation of the Dharma in the hope that the Buddha’s teaching will continue to speak to the core concerns of people in today’s world and provide an effective philosophy and practice with which to address them. I realize that what I say might seem puzzling, objectionable and even heretical to followers of traditional Buddhist schools. And I regret any offence I might inadvertently have caused you and others through my writings.
Here is an email I received via my website a few days ago from a complete stranger:
“Dear Stephen, thank you for the knowledge of Buddhism that you pass on to all of us engaged with the complexity of Buddhism in a modern Western world. Personally you have helped me recover the devotion to and belief in a Buddhist and ethical approach to life. Since I travelled in Asia 12 years ago, I have been very fascinated with Buddhism, but the question of rebirth always made me doubt whether I could call myself a Buddhist or not – and whether this was the right approach to life for me if I had to force myself to believe something I actually questioned. It was such a relief to read about agnosticism and Buddhism as being actually able to work together. You have helped me find my way back to something dear to me. So I have taken up my practice again, and this really brings focus back after many years in the dark.”
I get a steady stream of letters like this. After being inspired to practice the Dharma, many then become disillusioned and frustrated by their involvement with traditional forms of Buddhism. Having been presented with an image of Buddhism as open-minded, rational, scientific and tolerant, they often find themselves confronted with a Church-like institution that requires unconditional allegiance to a teacher and acceptance of a non-negotiable set of doctrinal beliefs. Some, as you suggest, are advised to pursue their practice while putting aside those aspects of Buddhist doctrine they find hard to accept. Yet while this approach may work in certain cases, in others it does not. For many people today – like my correspondent above – are seeking in Buddhism a way of life that integrates all aspects of their humanity: philosophical, ethical and spiritual. To be told simply to ignore doctrines such as rebirth strikes them as intellectually unsatisfying and even dishonest.
I found myself in a similar dilemma after eight years of studying with Geshe Rabten and other teachers in the Gelug tradition. Although I could no longer in good faith accept certain traditional beliefs, I was still convinced that the Dharma offered the most comprehensive framework within which a human life could flourish. It was then, as you know, that I went to Korea to study and train in Zen.
It has always puzzled me why you and my other Tibetan Buddhist friends never showed the slightest interest in what I did there. Zen does not sit comfortably with the Indo-Tibetan forms of the Dharma. It seems oddly different, even troubling. As we know, it was outlawed in Tibet after the Samye debate in the 8th century. Yet because of its antiquity and popularity, today one cannot just dismiss it out of hand. So you likewise felt obliged in your essay to appeal to the authority of Dogen to make your case for belief in rebirth more watertight by including Zen. I do not dispute that Zen Buddhists, broadly speaking, believe in rebirth. But, in terms of Zen practice, it is irrelevant. The fact that I questioned it made not an iota of difference to pursuing my study and training in the monastic community at Songgwang Sa.
A key significance of Zen in the coming of the Dharma to the West is that it provides an excellent historic case study of the encounter between Indian Buddhism and a civilization with a highly evolved and distinctive culture of its own, i.e. China. By contrast, when Buddhism entered South-East and Central Asia, together with the Dharma it also introduced a high culture – that of India – as well. By seeing how Buddhism was transformed by its encounter with China, we may get a clue as to how it also might change as it struggles to find a voice in the modern world.
I was trained in the Lin-chi (Rinzai) school of Zen, whose founder was the 9th century monk Lin-chi I-hsuan, perhaps best known for his admonition: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” Were you to read the Record of Lin-chi, I suspect you might find the writings of Batchelor rather timid and orthodox by comparison. Or consider this exchange between Bodhidharma, who brought Zen to China from India in the 6th century, and the devout Emperor Wu of Liang:
Wu: “What is the meaning of the Holy Truths?”
Bodhidharma: “Unholy emptiness.”
Wu: “So who is standing before me?”
Bodhidharma: “I don’t know.”
How’s that for an atheist-agnostic double whammy?
I found all this terribly refreshing and liberating. The Zen masters of the Tang dynasty (618-907) – regarded as the golden age of Buddhism in China – exhibited a wonderful, irreverent vitality that sprang from their native genius as it engaged with the Dharma of the Buddha. They gave rise to the Zen culture that spread throughout East Asia, producing sublime works of philosophy, poetry, literature, painting and architecture. Or would you regard the entire movement as a distortion of Buddhism, in which the Chinese projected their own prejudices on the Dharma, and recreated the Buddha in their own image as a Taoist sage?
I do not, however, consider myself a “Zen teacher” as you describe me; I have no more interest in promoting that form of Asian Buddhism than any other. Yet my experience of Zen was empowering – it affirmed the value of imagination and creativity in Dharma practice, it gave me the courage to speak out in my own voice. I would be the first to recognize that this can be a risky and hazardous endeavor. I am only too aware that I will be accused of arrogance or worse. At times I am assailed by doubts. Yet for better or worse, this is the way my path has unfolded, and I feel a responsibility for those who seem to benefit from what I say.
Since I returned to Europe from Korea 25 years ago, my studies have been focused on the discourses in the Pali Canon, which you acknowledge as “the most uncontested record of what the Buddha taught.” While it would be foolish to maintain that in these discourses the Buddha never spoke of rebirth or framed some of his key doctrines in the light of that belief, I would still argue that he did so because that was the prevailing worldview of his time. If you read those Upanishads that scholars regard as pre-dating the Buddha, you will find plenty of passages that talk of a continuity of life after death and the need for the soul to liberate itself from this cycle by achieving union with the absolute reality of God. The Jain tradition of the Buddha’s contemporary Mahavira, which goes back to the figure of Parsva some two centuries earlier, is framed in a similar way but without God. The Buddha goes a step further and takes the soul out of the equation as well, though, curiously, provides no explanation of what is or ceases to be reborn. According to Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of the Ancient World: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, the view of rebirth was widespread throughout the whole of antiquity from India to Greece, and accepted by Pythagoras, who preceded the Buddha, and Socrates, who was his contemporary.
Now if, as you say, the Buddha taught a “quite different” view of rebirth, you would expect to find at least one sutta in the Pali Canon where you find him being criticized for his views on this matter by brahmins and other ascetics, and defending his unorthodox position. But, as far as I’m aware, you don’t. On the contrary, when reading the Pali discourses, one has the overriding impression that speaker and audience are in broad agreement on what rebirth means. The Buddha doesn’t have to explain himself. I recognize that the Buddha or his followers refined and developed the rebirth doctrine as part of their distinctive scheme of salvation, but this is a Buddhist contribution to the evolution of an established concept, rather than a departure to something different.
I was glad to see that you quoted the Kalama Sutta as an authoritative source in your essay. This is the only text I know of in the Pali Canon where the Buddha explicitly states that the practice of the Dharma is valid and worthwhile “even if there is no hereafter and there are no fruits of actions good or ill.” This is the closest he comes to an agnostic position on the subject. At the very least it suggests that he did not regard belief in rebirth to be necessary for all those who followed his teaching. Since the Kalama people are thought to have lived outside the area of Brahmanic cultural influence, the text offers us a glimpse as to how the Buddha, were he still alive, might address an audience in the West today.
As to the Buddha’s awakening, it is hardly surprising that you select a Pali text that describes it in terms of remembering past lives, while I prefer to cite the accounts that don’t. For me, the most economic and compelling account is found in The Noble Quest (Majjhima, 26), where the Buddha tells his story from the renunciation to his decision to teach. When he describes the awakening, there is no mention at all of remembering past lives. His awakening consists of his seeing conditioned origination from the perspective of the cessation of craving. Nothing else. Then, as we know, he goes to Sarnath, where he delivers his first discourse Turning the Wheel of Dharma (an authoritative text if there ever was one) at the conclusion of which he declares that “as long as my knowledge and vision were not entirely clear about the twelve aspects of the four noble truths, I did not claim to have had a peerless awakening.” Again, no mention of remembering past lives.
The doctrine of rebirth is not inconsistent with these accounts, and I expect you will respond by saying that they can only be really understood by framing them in that context. I would claim, however, that they provide an adequate basis for developing a coherent, canonically sound, secular interpretation of the Dharma that has no need at all for belief in multiple lifetimes.
But there is another way to look at the issue of rebirth which suggests that the Buddha would have regarded this entire argument as being beside the point. Siddhattha Gotama was born into a turbulent period in Indian history, where the established social, political, philosophical and religious order was being thrown into question. In this highly disputative environment, some teachers openly rejected the view of rebirth. While we get a general sense of this intellectual ferment throughout the Pali Canon, it comes into clearest focus, I believe, in two parables: those of the poisoned arrow (Majjhima, 63) and the blind men and the elephant (Udana, 6.4). Following the Biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar and the Pali scholar Richard Gombrich’s recent What the Buddha Thought, parables are regarded as having a high likelihood of being actual words of the founder of the tradition.
Both these parables concern the ten views on which the Buddha famously refused to comment. In the parable of the blind men, we find these views being debated by brahmins and ascetics, who are “wounding each other with verbal darts, saying ‘the Dharma is like this!’ ‘the Dharma is not like that!'” Among these views, not only do we find “the mind and body are the same” and “the mind and body are different,” but also “the Tathagata exists after death” and “the Tathagata does not exist after death.” Since the parable describes non-Buddhist brahmins and ascetics arguing about these issues, it seems clear that “the Tathagata” here does not refer to the Buddha (who, in any case, repeatedly stated “this is my last birth”) but just means “one” or “I,” which is how the Pali commentaries explain it. In other words, these views are simply the “big questions” to which religions traditionally provide the answers. The Buddha, by contrast, regards them as utterly irrelevant to accomplishing the urgent task at hand: removing the poisoned arrow of craving that pierces one’s heart.
The Pali canon might be the most uncontested record of what the Buddha taught, but that doesn’t mean it speaks in a single, unambiguous voice. One hears multiple voices, some apparently contradicting others. In part, this is because the Buddha taught dialogically, addressing the needs of different audiences, rather than imposing a single one-size-fits-all doctrine. And it is precisely this diversity, I feel, that has allowed for different forms of the Dharma to evolve and flourish.
Your attack on atheism puzzled me. I was surprised that you found it at all contentious to describe the Buddha’s teaching as atheistic. Many readers have said to me: “Why did you call your book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist? I thought all Buddhists were atheists?” To then launch into a tirade against the evils perpetuated by atheists during the 20th century, insinuating that by declaring myself an atheist I am unwittingly preparing the ground for another anti-Buddhist pogrom, is absurd. Unlike Stalin and Mao, I am a Buddhist atheist, remember. By choosing this title, I was hoping to show how Buddhism can offer a way of life that embodies our deepest ethical, spiritual and religious concerns, yet without having to believe in anything resembling God.
I was glad you mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is a great inspiration for me. Here was a courageous and deeply religious man, who nonetheless envisioned a “religionless Christianity” that embraced the secular world. While the German Churches compromised and vacillated in their dealings with Hitler, he stood alone in bodhisattvic opposition to the Nazi tyranny. I entirely sympathize with his view that religious institutions can often hinder a heartfelt engagement with the most pressing issues of the day. Some of us believe that if the Dharma is to breathe again with the same creativity and vitality that characterized all its schools at their inception, it will need a reformation.
Yours in the Dharma,
This letter was in response to “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist” by B. Alan Wallace, first published as a Mandala online exclusive.
Stephen Schettini offers his perspective on the exchange between Wallace and Batechelor in “An Old Story of Faith and Doubt: Reminiscences of Alan Wallace and Stephen Batchelor.”
A review of Stephen Batchelor’s provocative Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is available through the October-December 2010 Editor’s Choice.
Read an interview with Stephen Batchelor from Mandala September-November 2002, “The Twins: Faith and Doubt.”
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