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B. Alan Wallace
In a new book, B. Alan Wallace and Brian Hodel tackle the ancient question – what is the mind? From the moving narrative of Alan’s own life through the fallacies of scientific materialism, the authors take us to the heart of the Buddhist science of consciousness. Here is an excerpt:
Historically in the West, the existence of negative emotions has been taken for granted.
In Darwin’s view, aggression served the survival of the species. Freud believed that psychotherapy could do no more than make the mentally disturbed patient ordinarily happy – that is, subject to the normal flux of negative and positive emotions. Western philosophers have viewed aggression and hostility among humans as natural and permanent. And although we are often encouraged to “think positive,” we view those with a permanent positive attitude toward life – “optimists” – as a rare breed. Such exceptional people are frequently highlighted by the media in “human interest” stories. What makes them interesting is that they are so unusual, at least in Western culture.
Yet evolutionary theory has never satisfactorily explained the origin of such highly valued positive emotions as empathy and compassion. According to Buddhism, our fundamental motivation in life is the quest for happiness. Love (the wish that others have happiness and its causes) and compassion (the wish that others be spared suffering and its causes) are also considered basic to human nature. Thus, from this point of view we are essentially altruistic, contradicting the generally accepted Western view that negativity is the norm. On the contrary, according to Buddhism, negativity derives from a misunderstanding of the mind and the universe we inhabit. For Buddhism the unenlightened mind is dysfunctional. According to this view, one of the greatest errors in thinking is the belief that happiness derives essentially from one’s outer circumstances. …
In the exclusive online content of the October-December 2010 issue of Mandala, B. Alan Wallace sparked a heated debate about truth and doubt with the controversial “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist.” Stephen Batchelor, who was a focus of Alan Wallace’s criticism, responded thoughtfully in an open letter in the January-March 2011 issue. In “An Old Story of Faith and Doubt,” Stephen Schettini examines the debate between these two well-known thinkers from a more personal and person-centered perspective.
By Stephen Schettini
I first met Alan Wallace and Stephen Batchelor in 1975, in the tiny Swiss hamlet of Schwendi. I lived upstairs from them in our four-roomed house. From day one, I was impressed that the two of them could share such close quarters without argument even though their temperaments were strikingly different. The philosophical gulf between them today reflects those personal differences remarkably closely. It doesn’t surprise me, but I am saddened by the increasingly strident tone of those differences. After three decades, the old restraint seems finally to be bursting out of its emotional containment. This is not just a debate of ideas.
On the face of it, the Batchelor-Wallace face-off is an archetypal battle between faith and skepticism, one that characterizes not just Buddhism but all philosophical thought. It doesn’t actually require two people; that very conflict has played out in my own mind since early childhood. My memoir The Novice explores that theme at length, and many readers have written to tell me what a relief it’s been to know they’re not alone.
Wallace and Batchelor, however, have chosen to entrench their positions and stick their necks out quite publicly. This might be a fruitful debate with the potential to sensitize Western Buddhists to the profound and ubiquitous issue of faith versus doubt – or, it could just turn nasty. Perhaps it already has.
Alan’s recent Mandala article, “Distorted Visions of Buddhism,” accuses Stephen of rewriting history, and therein lies the crux: what to Alan is historical fact is to Stephen debatable; what to one must remain beyond question is to the other the very thing that must most urgently be questioned. The troubling thing about the article is that Alan questions Stephen’s integrity. That’s not debate; it’s personal. Alan sees himself as representative of the tradition in a way that Stephen is not (though I dare say Stephen would agree with a sigh of relief). Where do I stand? I think that icons are important fixtures in the Dharma landscape and so are iconoclasts.
When we were monks together all those years ago, we often referred to certain teachers as “fully enlightened beings” as if we knew what that meant or could recognize such people when we saw them. We were in awe of all Tibetan lamas, even mere geshes. By any Western standards, the scholarship of our teachers Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and Geshe Tamdrin Rabten was impressive. The openness and enormous attractiveness of the Tibetan monks in exile were hard to resist. Here were intelligent, kind men who urged us to think and debate. For me, and I suspect for others, they were (at least for a while) surrogate fathers.
We did our best to follow the monastic rule and tried to honor the rules of guru devotion implicit in Tibetan Buddhism (and Tibetan convention). Alan seemed quietly determined in his pursuit of these relationships, but Stephen never shied away from second guessing a teacher if something didn’t sit well with him. You might make the case that Buddhism encourages skepticism, but Stephen brought his skepticism along with him. It certainly wasn’t foreign to the non-denominational English secularism in which he was raised. Alan, on the other hand, was an American son of a Baptist minister. I can only presume he grew up with a very different sense of belief. This isn’t to imply that Alan is a dogmatist: he described his budding interest in Tibetan Buddhism as having “entailed a very painful break with my father, resulting in four years of poverty, malnutrition and terrible health in Dharamsala.”1 I think we all had father issues of one sort or another, and I suspect that shaped our attitudes towards and relationships with our teachers, relationships that in the Tibetan tradition are given enormous weight. My father was a difficult man with whom I never established a satisfactory relationship; Stephen grew up without a father.
Alan and Stephen were both elder monks and teachers in our little community, and so role models to the rest of us. Both came across as self-protective, but each cultivated this attribute in his own way. Stephen put on an air of nonchalance that I took as a feint; he never shied from any challenge to the status quo, but was prone to express it with a sarcastic word, even a slight sneer. Such comments would cast a shadow over Alan’s brow, though he usually managed to bite his lip. Nevertheless, a little exploration usually revealed Stephen’s “offhand” remarks to be anything but casual.
I don’t remember Alan expressing any doubts in public, and presume that he would have shared them in private with his own teachers. He does claim to have entertained doubts, though I’ve no idea how existential they were.2 He was discrete to the point of being opaque, and his shell seemed more straightforward than Stephen’s. He shared his knowledge freely, but expressed little of his self. I thought him uncomfortable in his skin. He preferred to speak of things he could back up with scriptural citations or logical argument than stories or opinions that entailed personal feelings. He was an impressive scholar with a sharp eye, an excellent memory and a zeal for correctness. These are my subjective impressions, but in the years since, I’ve learned that many who admired Alan’s intellect also felt uncomfortable with him. As for his scholarly qualities, he was once described as an “encyclopaedia of Buddhism.” Indeed.
The end result of these different personalities was that although Stephen could be more acidic and aloof, he was fundamentally more approachable. Alan was harder to approach, but if you were looking for clear answers to troubling questions, he was more likely to deliver a consoling thought.
The main thrust of Alan’s article is that Stephen is rewriting history and reconstructing what’s been “true” for generations of Buddhists in a subjective and idiosyncratic way. Stephen’s interpretation of what the Buddha taught and – even more contentiously – what he meant, are not a product of strict scholarship and philology, but a reworking derived on his own intuition. Alan doesn’t like this. He says it’s:
“… an expression of arrogance to override their [professional scholars and contemplatives throughout history] conclusions simply due to one’s own preferences or ‘intuition’ (which is often thinly disguised prejudice). To ignore the most compelling evidence of what the Buddha taught and to replace that by assertions that run counter to such evidence is indefensible.”3
Even if Stephen’s work is a product of the most subjective feelings, how does that call his integrity into question? As a born skeptic, Stephen is more concerned about the plausibility of the teachings ascribed to the Buddha than dependent on whether or not he actually taught them. He values experience over tradition. Who is his role model for this? Siddhartha Gotama. Nevertheless, by using that method to draw his picture of the Buddha, he undermines the august pretentions of scholarship and tradition, and infuriates Alan.
Alan is trying to be a good Buddhist, but his article raises two questions:
First, are these teachings and people really sacred? For Alan, “yes,” because Buddhism is a religion; for Stephen, “no,” because Buddhism is a non-religion. There’s not much room for compromise here.
Second, and more chillingly, is Alan trying to keep Buddhism pure? Is such a thing possible? Buddhism is a construct or, as Shariputtra says to the Buddha’s great satisfaction in the Heart Sutra, “There is no Dharma.” With all their fears and defenses, human beings are the real actors in the world. The Dharma, no matter how revered, only takes shape through people. To express his dissatisfaction with the way Stephen shapes it, Alan draws parallels with the methods of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. As circumspectly as he explores this comparison, that’s an emotionally charged accusation that should be reserved for discussion of real atrocities. It’s out of line. Is Stephen’s questioning of Siddhartha’s true nature an atrocity? Is Buddhism too fragile to withstand such an affront? Are Buddhists so gullible that they must be guided by scholars? If so, when, if ever, will they lose their gullibility?
And what of Siddhartha Gotama’s true nature? Stephen has spent his life trying to reconcile what the man taught with the fact that he was a man and that whatever was special about him wasn’t the fruit of high privilege but of right effort. If the Buddha didn’t work his own way to awakening in a way that we can follow, what’s the point of his life and teaching? Buddhism in its religious incarnations is presented as a stairway to nirvana, and the Buddha himself as virtually – if not actually – supernatural. How important is it to believe that instead of squeezing through the birth canal like other newborns, he popped out of his mother’s side, traced the compass points and pronounced his future?
Alan allows us to reject this and exit Buddhism by the back door, but not to stay and fight, by suggesting that those who aver it might be mistaken, or even willfully inventive. Perhaps some were well-intentioned but misguided – but no; there were so many of them, for so many centuries, they must be right. Such is the logic of the institutional lineage-tree that Tibetans use to trace their respective traditions back to the oral teachings of the Buddha himself, and which “proves” their unquestionable veracity.
The Buddha taught 2,600 years ago. For 500 years, his lessons were recited by various groups and eventually written down by one or some of them. No one really knows how faithful that process was over the centuries, but to not even wonder is to stick your head decidedly in the sand. With a little lubrication from the doctrine of skillful means it survives the test of consistency remarkably well, but what does that prove? To suggest that in two and a half millennia none of those whose lives and careers were invested in Buddhist institutions all over Asia added the least accretion is an act of religious faith, not of scholarly discipline.
Are we to rely on those who came afterwards for the truth of what the Buddha taught? Can we not go straight to his words and put them to the test for ourselves? The Buddha enjoins us to do just that in the Kalama Sutra – probably the most influential document in spreading the Dharma to the West.4
Stephen is unafraid to weigh those words for himself; Alan finds that arrogant. Alan is a loyal traditionalist and authority figure. He feels both qualified and responsible to state what is acceptable and what is not.
It would be a terrible thing to have only one option in this dilemma: to be obliged to be orthodox or to be forced to question everything. I ask again: can Western Buddhism not handle diversity? History shows that some traditions were indeed unable to do just that. Even today, some forms of Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are marked more by intolerance than by the simple embrace of common humanity. What’s the point of that? Well, sometimes it’s not about rational argument; it’s about human behavior.
Is it really presumptuous to prioritize the Buddha’s teachings? Isn’t it just good sense? Isn’t the practice of mindfulness evidently more important than belief in a Mount Meru-centered universe? Won’t your willingness to acknowledge denial bring you tangibly closer to awakening than a belief in reincarnation? Is it unreasonable that the way you answer those questions affects the way you perceive and talk about the Buddha? Does it forbid you to speculate, or to prod, goad and even denounce the status quo?
Perhaps two old Dharma cronies have rubbed each other the wrong way for too long. Or, perhaps Stephen’s individual ego is all caught up in itself. Or, then again, perhaps Alan’s collective institutional ego is too big for its boots. Too much freedom of thought is not conducive to humility, but too much scholarship is bad for the heart. The questions of faith and doubt have been explored for millennia, and will hopefully continue to be explored. They form a dialectic between which we approach awakening. Personal attacks do no one any service, even if they’re couched between the lines of clever argument.
Alan’s article scores some very crisp points, but its tone is unfriendly. That may sound lame, but to me it’s paramount. It’s rude to Stephen and all of like mind. We’re all trying to get to the root of what the Buddha taught. Stephen is an upstart; Alan is a paragon of correctness. They’re both entitled. In any case, they’re not likely to change now.
As a junior monk back in Switzerland in 1975, I was haunted by the tension between them. Wanting to avoid confusion at all cost, I chose not to see it. I practiced denial in order to be more mindful! In the years since, I’ve learned that the practice of Dharma is usually as chaotic as this, which is in part why I lost faith in the scholarly illusion of the straight and narrow. My chaos has nevertheless led me to greater acceptance, peace and clarity. The path is not straight. How could it be when life is a mass of contradictions and a comedy of errors? You need a sense of humor, especially about those things you hold most sacred.
You know, we almost didn’t have Alan and Stephen to talk about. A closed vent in the Swiss heating system one night filled their room with assorted gases, including carbon dioxide and monoxide, almost asphyxiating the two of them in one stroke. What a loss that would be for us … or would it? This argument they’re having is so done, and yet so irresolvable that there’ll always be a pair of old rivals somewhere arguing about what the Buddha really meant. Let’s just hope they’ll be decent about it.
I don’t know exactly what the Buddha taught. I wasn’t there. Even if I had been, I can’t say what I’d have made of his words, let alone his presence and body language. After all, there’s far more to communication (and miscommunication) than mere ideas. What do you think?
Stephen Schettini is director of Quiet Mind Seminars and author of The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned. He can be reached through his personal website at www.schettini.com.
 Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist, paragraph 5. Mandala October-December 2010, online content.
 “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, ‘This monk is our teacher.’ When you know in yourselves: “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them.” – Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha; from the Kalama Sutra (trans. Nanamoli Thera)
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.”
By B. Alan Wallace
As Buddhism has encountered modernity, it runs against widespread prejudices, both religious and anti-religious, and it is common for all those with such biases to misrepresent Buddhism, either intentionally or unintentionally. Reputable scholars of Buddhism, both traditional and modern, all agree that the historical Buddha taught a view of karma and rebirth that was quite different from the previous takes on these ideas. Moreover, his teachings on the nature and origins of suffering as well as liberation are couched entirely within the framework of rebirth. Liberation is precisely freedom from the round of birth and death that is samsara. But for many contemporary people drawn to Buddhism, the teachings on karma and rebirth don’t sit well, so they are faced with a dilemma. A legitimate option simply is adopt those theories and practices from various Buddhist traditions that one finds compelling and beneficial and set the others aside. An illegitimate option is to reinvent the Buddha and his teachings based on one’s own prejudices. This, unfortunately, is the route followed by Stephen Batchelor and other like-minded people who are intent on reshaping the Buddha in their own images.
The back cover of Batchelor’s most recent book, entitled Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, describes his work as “a stunning and groundbreaking recovery of the historical Buddha and his message.” One way for this to be true, would be that his book is based on a recent discovery of ancient Buddhist manuscripts, comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi library for Christianity. But it is not. Another way is for his claims to be based on unprecedented historical research by a highly accomplished scholar of ancient Indian languages and history. But no such professional research or scholarship is in evidence in this book. Instead, his claims about the historical Buddha and his teachings are almost entirely speculative, as he takes another stab at recreating Buddhism to conform to his current views.
To get a clear picture of Batchelor’s agnostic-turned-atheist approach to Buddhism, there is no need to look further than his earlier work, Buddhism without Beliefs. Claiming to embrace Thomas Huxley’s definition of agnosticism as the method of following reason as far as it will take one, he admonishes his readers, “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”1 He then proceeds to explain who the Buddha really was and what he really taught, often in direct opposition to the teachings attributed to the Buddha by all schools of Buddhism. If in this he is following Huxley’s dictum, this would imply that Batchelor has achieved at least the ability to see directly into the past, if not complete omniscience itself.
Some may believe that the liberties Batchelor takes in redefining the Buddha’s teachings are justified since no one knows what he really taught, so one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. This view ignores the fact that generations of traditional Buddhists, beginning with the first Buddhist council shortly following the Buddha’s death, have reverently taken the utmost care to accurately preserve his teachings. Moreover, modern secular Buddhist scholarship also has applied its formidable literary, historical, and archeological skills to trying to determine the teachings of the Buddha. Despite the many important differences among Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism, traditional Buddhists of all schools recognize the Pali suttas as being the most uncontested records of the Buddha’s teachings.
In the face of such consensus by professional scholars and contemplatives throughout history, it is simply an expression of arrogance to override their conclusions simply due to one’s own preferences or “intuition” (which is often thinly disguised prejudice). To ignore the most compelling evidence of what the Buddha taught and to replace that by assertions that run counter to such evidence is indefensible. And when those secular, atheistic assertions just happen to correspond to the materialistic assumptions of modernity, it is simply ridiculous to attribute them to the historical Buddha.
For example, contrary to all the historical evidence, Batchelor writes that the Buddha “did not claim to have had experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” To cite just two of innumerable statements in the Pali canon pertaining to the scope of the Buddha’s knowledge: “Whatever in this world – with its devas, maras, and brahmas, its generations complete with contemplatives and priests, princes and men – is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, pondered by the intellect, that has been fully awakened to by the Tathagata. Thus he is called the Tathagata.”2 In a similar vein, we read, “the world and its arising are fully known by a Tathagata and he is released from both; he also knows the ending of it and the way thereto. He speaks as he does; he is unconquered in the world.”3
Batchelor brings to his understanding of Buddhism a strong antipathy toward religion and religious institutions, and this bias pervades all his recent writings. Rather than simply rejecting elements of the Buddha’s teachings that strike him as religious – which would be perfectly legitimate – Batchelor takes the illegitimate step of denying that the Buddha ever taught anything that would be deemed religious by contemporary western standards, claiming, that “There is nothing particularly religious or spiritual about this path.” Rather, the Buddha’s teachings were a form of “existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism” that was “refracted through the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world.”4 Being an agnostic himself, Batchelor overrides the massive amount of textual evidence that the Buddha was anything but an agnostic, and recreates the Buddha in his own image, promoting exactly what Batchelor himself believes in, namely, a form of existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism.
Since Batchelor dismisses all talk of rebirth as a waste of time, he projects this view onto his image of the Buddha, declaring that he regarded “speculation about future and past lives to be just another distraction.” This claim flies in the face of the countless times the Buddha spoke of the immense importance of rebirth and karma, which lie at the core of his teachings as they are recorded in Pali suttas. Batchelor is one of many Zen teachers nowadays who regard future and past lives as a mere distraction. But in adopting this attitude, they go against the teachings of Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto school of Zen, who addressed the importance of the teachings on rebirth and karma in his principal anthology, Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma (Shobogenzo). In his book Deep Faith in Cause and Effect (Jinshin inga), he criticizes Zen masters who deny karma, and in Karma of the Three Times (Sanji go), he goes into more detail on this matter.5
As to the source of Buddhist teachings on rebirth, Batchelor speculates, “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.” In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha counsels others not to accept beliefs simply because many people adhere to them, or because they accord with a tradition, rumor, scripture, or speculation. So Batchelor, in effect, accuses the Buddha of not following his own advice! In reality, the Buddha’s detailed accounts of rebirth and karma differed significantly from other Indian thinkers’ views on these subjects; and given the wide range of philosophical views during his era, there was no uniformly accepted “worldview of his time.”
Rather than adopting this idea from mere hearsay, the Buddhadeclared that in the first watch of the night of his enlightenment, after purifying his mind with the achievement of samadhi, he gained “direct knowledge” of the specific details of many thousands of his own past lifetimes throughout the course of many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion. In the second watch of the night, he observed the multiple rebirths of countless other sentient beings, observing the consequences of their wholesome and unwholesome deeds from one life to the next. During the third watch of the night he gained direct knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, revealing the causes of gaining liberation from this cycle of rebirth.6 While there is ample evidence that the Buddha claimed to have direct knowledge of rebirth, there is no textual or historical evidence that he simply adopted some pre-existing view, which would have been antithetical to his entire approach of not accepting theories simply because they are commonly accepted. There would be nothing wrong if Batchelor simply rejected the authenticity of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the core of his teachings, but instead he rejects the most reliable accounts of the Buddha’s vision and replaces it with his own, while then projecting it on the Buddha that exists only in his imagination.
Perhaps the most important issue secularists ignore regarding the teachings attributed to the Buddha is that there are contemplative methods – practiced by many generations of ardent seekers of truth – for putting many, if not all, these teachings to the test of experience. Specifically, Buddhist assertions concerning the continuity of individual consciousness after death and rebirth can be explored through the practice of samadhi, probing beyond the coarse dimension of consciousness that is contingent upon the brain to a subtler continuum of awareness that allegedly carries on from one lifetime to the next.7 Such samadhi training does not require prior belief in reincarnation, but it does call for great determination and zeal in refining one’s attention skills. Such full-time, rigorous training may require months or even years of disciplined effort, and this is where the Buddhist science of the mind really gets launched. If one is content with one’s own dogmatic, materialist assertions – content to accept the uncorroborated assumption that all states of consciousness are produced by the brain – then one is bound to remain ignorant about the origins and nature of consciousness. But if one is determined to progress from a state of agnosticism – not knowing what happens at death – to direct knowledge of the deeper dimensions of consciousness, then Buddhism provides multiple avenues of experiential discovery. Many may welcome this as a refreshing alternative to the blind acceptance of materialist assumptions about consciousness that do not lend themselves to either confirmation or repudiation through experience.
Batchelor concludes that since different Buddhist schools vary in their interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings in response to the questions of the nature of that which is reborn and how this process occurs, all their views are based on nothing more than speculation.8 Scientists in all fields of inquiry commonly differ in their interpretations of empirical findings, so if this fact invalidates Buddhist teachings, it should equally invalidate scientific findings as well. While in his view Buddhism started out as agnostic, it “has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion (i.e., a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests).”9 Since there is no evidence that Buddhism was ever agnostic, any assertions about how it lost this status are nothing but groundless speculations, driven by the philosophical bias that he brings to Buddhism.
As an agnostic Buddhist, Batchelor does not regard the Buddha’s teachings as a source of answers to questions of where we came from, where we are going, or what happens after death, regardless of the extensive teachings attributed to the Buddha regarding each of these issues. Rather, he advises Buddhists to seek such knowledge in what he deems the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and so on. With this advice, he reveals that he is a devout member of the congregation of Thomas Huxley’s Church Scientific, taking refuge in science as the one true way to answer all the deepest questions concerning human nature and the universe at large. Ironically, a rapidly growing number of open-minded cognitive scientists are seeking to collaborate with Buddhist contemplatives in the multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural study of the mind. Buddhist and scientific methods of inquiry have their strengths and limitations, and many who are eager to find answers to questions of where we came from, where we are going, or what happens after death recognize that Buddhism has much to offer in this regard. Batchelor’s stance, on the contrary, fails to note the limitations of modern science and the strengths of Buddhism regarding such questions, so the current of history is bound to leave him behind.
Having identified himself as an agnostic follower of Huxley, Batchelor then proceeds to make one declaration after another about the limits of human consciousness and the ultimate nature of human existence and the universe at large, as if he were the most accomplished of gnostics. A central feature of Buddhist meditation is the cultivation of samadhi, by which the attentional imbalances of restlessness and lethargy are gradually overcome through rigorous, sustained training. But in reference to the vacillation of the mind from restlessness to lethargy, Batchelor responds, “No amount of meditative expertise from the mystical East will solve this problem, because such restlessness and lethargy are not mere mental or physical lapses but reflexes of an existential condition.”10 Contemplative adepts from multiple traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism have been disproving this claim for thousands of years, and it is now being refuted by modern scientific research.11 But Batchelor is so convinced of his own preconceptions regarding the limitations of the human mind and of meditation that he ignores all evidence to the contrary.
While there are countless references in the discourses of the Buddha referring to the realization of emptiness, Batchelor claims, “Emptiness…is not something we ‘realize’ in a moment of mystical insight that ‘breaks through’ to a transcendent reality concealed behind yet mysteriously underpinning the empirical world.” He adds, “we can no more step out of language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies.”12 Buddhist contemplatives throughout history have reportedly experienced states of consciousness that transcend language and concepts as a result of their practice of insight meditation. But Batchelor describes such practice as entailing instead a state of perplexity in which one is overcome by “awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock,” during which not “just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.”13
Batchelor’s account of meditation describes the experiences of those who have failed to calm the restlessness and lethargy of their own minds through the practice of samadhi, and failed to realize emptiness or transcend language and concepts through the practice of vipashyana. Instead of acknowledging these as failures, he heralds them as triumphs and, without a shred of supportive evidence, attributes them to a Buddhism that exists nowhere but in his imagination.
Although Batchelor declared himself to be an agnostic, such proclamations about the true teachings of the Buddha and about the nature of the human mind, the universe, and ultimate reality all suggest that he has assumed for himself the role of a gnostic of the highest order. Rather than presenting Buddhism without beliefs, his version is saturated with his own beliefs, many of them based upon nothing more than his own imagination. Batchelor’s so-called agnosticism is utterly paradoxical. On the one hand, he rejects a multitude of Buddhist beliefs based upon the most reliable textual sources, while at the same time confidently making one claim after another without ever supporting them with demonstrable evidence.
In Batchelor’s most recent book,14 he refers to himself as an atheist, more so than as an agnostic, and when I asked him whether he still holds the above views expressed in his book published thirteen years ago, he replied that he no longer regards the Buddha’s teachings as agnostic, but as pragmatic.15 It should come as no surprise that as he shifted his own self-image from that of an agnostic to an atheist, the image he projects of the Buddha shifts accordingly. In short, his views on the nature of the Buddha and his teachings are far more a reflection of himself and his own views than they are of any of the most reliable historical accounts of the life and teachings of the Buddha.
In his move from agnosticism to atheism, Batchelor moves closer to the position of Sam Harris, who is devoted to the ideal of science destroying religion. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris proclaims that the problem with religion is the problem of dogma, in contrast to atheism, which he says “is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.”16 This, of course, is the attitude of all dogmatists: they are so certain of their beliefs that they regard anyone who disagrees with them as being so stupid or ignorant that they can’t recognize the obvious.17
In his article “Killing the Buddha” Harris shares his advice with the Buddhist community, like Batchelor asserting, “The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism,” and he goes further in declaring that “merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.” By the same logic, Harris, as a self-avowed atheist, must be complicit in the monstrous violence of communist regimes throughout Asia who, based on atheistic dogma, sought to destroy all religions and murder their followers. While Harris has recently distanced himself from the label “atheist,” he still insists that religious faith may be the most destructive force in the world. It is far more reasonable, however, to assert that greed, hatred, and delusion are the most destructive forces in human nature; and theists, atheists, and agnostics are all equally prone to these mental afflictions.
Harris not only claims to have what is tantamount to a kind of gnostic insight into the true teachings of the Buddha, he also claims to know what most Buddhists do and do not realize: “If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world – truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence – these truths are not in the least ‘Buddhist.’ No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not.”18 In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy of communist regimes’ attempts to annihilate Buddhism from the face of the earth, it comes as an unexpected blow when individuals who have been instructed by Buddhist teachers and profess sympathy for Buddhism seem intent on completing what the communists have left undone.
The current domination of science, education, and the secular media by scientific materialism has cast doubt on many of the theories and practices of the world’s religions. This situation is not without historical precedent. In the time of the Weimar Republic, Hitler offered what appeared to be a vital secular faith in place of the discredited creeds of religion, Lenin and Stalin did the same in the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong followed suit in China. Hugh Heclo, former professor of government at Harvard University, writes of this trend, “If traditional religion is absent from the public arena, secular religions are unlikely to satisfy man’s quest for meaning. … It was an atheistic faith in man as creator of his own grandeur that lay at the heart of Communism, fascism and all the horrors they unleashed for the twentieth century. And it was adherents of traditional religions – Martin Niemöller, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber – who often warned most clearly of the tragedy to come from attempting to build man’s own version of the New Jerusalem on Earth.”19
While Batchelor focuses on replacing the historical teachings of the Buddha with his own secularized vision and Harris rails at the suffering inflicted upon humanity by religious dogmatists, both tend to overlook the fact that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong caused more bloodshed, justified by their secular ideologies, than all the religious wars that preceded them throughout human history.
I am not suggesting that Batchelor or Harris, who are both decent, well-intentioned men, are in any way similar to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Zedong. But I am suggesting that Batchelor’s misrepresentation of Buddhism parallels that of Chinese communist anti-Buddhist propaganda; and the Buddhist holocaust inflicted by multiple communist regimes throughout Asia during the twentieth century were based upon and justified by propaganda virtually identical to Harris’s vitriolic, anti-religious polemics.
The Theravada Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa refers to “far enemies” and “near enemies” of certain virtues, namely, loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The far enemies of each of these virtues are vices that are diametrically opposed to their corresponding virtues, and the near enemies are false facsimiles. The far enemy of loving-kindness, for instance, is malice, and that of compassion is cruelty. The near enemy of loving-kindness is self-centered attachment, and that of compassion is grief, or despair.20 To draw a parallel, communist regimes that are bent on destroying Buddhism from the face of the earth may be called the far enemies of Buddhism, for they are diametrically opposed to all that Buddhism stands for. Batchelor and Harris, on the other hand, present themselves as being sympathetic to Buddhism, but their visions of the nature of the Buddha’s teachings are false facsimiles of all those that have been handed down reverently from one generation to the next since the time of the Buddha. However benign their intentions, their writings may be regarded as “near enemies” of Buddhism.
The popularity of the writings of Batchelor, Harris, and other atheists such as Richard Dawkins – both within the scientific community and the public at large – shows they are far from alone in terms of their utter disillusionment with traditional religions. Modern science, as conceived by Galileo, originated out of a love for God the Father and a wish to know the mind of their benevolent, omnipotent Creator by way of knowing His creation. As long as science and Christianity seemed compatible, religious followers of science could retain what psychologists call a sense of “secure attachment” regarding both science and religion. But particularly with Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection and the militant rise of the Church Scientific, for many, the secure attachment toward religion has mutated into a kind of dismissive avoidance.
Children with avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid parents and caregivers – no longer seeking comfort or contact with them – and this becomes especially pronounced after a period of absence. People today who embrace science, together with the metaphysical beliefs of scientific materialism turn away from traditional religious beliefs and institutions, no longer seeking comfort or contact with them; and those who embrace religion and refuse to be indoctrinated by materialistic biases commonly lose interest in science. This trend is viewed with great perplexity and dismay by the scientific community, many of whom are convinced that they are uniquely objective, unbiased, and free of beliefs that are unsupported by empirical evidence.
Thomas Huxley’s ideal of the beliefs and institution of the Church Scientific achieving “domination over the whole realm of the intellect” is being promoted by agnostics and atheists like Batchelor and Harris. But if we are ever to encounter the Buddhist vision of reality, we must first set aside all our philosophical biases, whether they are theistic, agnostic, atheist, or otherwise. Then, through critical, disciplined study of the most reliable sources of the Buddha’s teachings, guided by qualified spiritual friends and teachers, followed by rigorous, sustained practice, we may encounter the Buddhist vision of reality. And with this encounter with our own true nature, we may realize freedom through our own experience. That is the end of agnosticism, for we come to know reality as it is, and the truth will set us free.
B. Alan Wallace is an American author, translator, teacher, researcher, interpreter, and Buddhist practitioner interested in the intersections of consciousness studies and scientific disciplines such as psychology, cognitive neuroscience and physics.
To read Nancy Patton’s review of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, please visit this issue’s Editor’s Choice.
Read Stephen Batchelor’s response to Wallace in “An Open Letter To B. Alan Wallace.”
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.”
7. Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification, trans. Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1979), XIII 13-120; B. Alan Wallace, Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 115 – 118.
11. Progress in this regard can be read by following the series of scientific papers on the “Shamatha Project” on the website of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies: http://sbinstitute.com/. Other studies have been cited elsewhere in this volume.
20. Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification, trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1979) IX: B. Alan Wallace, The Four Immeasurables: Cultivating a Boundless Heart (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2004).
By B. Alan Wallace
As a result of the genocide perpetrated against Buddhist cultures throughout Asia during the twentieth century at the hands of various communist regimes, all waving the ideological banner of scientific materialism, the very survival of Mahayana Buddhism in particular has been imperiled. Thus, for many of its followers, the preservation of the vitality of the Mahayana tradition in the modern world is a highest priority. There are various ways of preserving this tradition. Outwardly, the creation of images of the Buddha, translations and publications of Buddhist teachings, and the building of stupas are ways of preserving representations of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. All of such efforts are expressions of sincere devotion. On one occasion, Dromtönpa, the principal Tibetan disciple of the great Indian Buddhist master Atisha, encountered a man engaging in various devotional practices. He responded, “It is very good to apply yourself to devotional practices, but it is even better to practice Dharma.”
To preserve their tradition, many Buddhists nowadays place their highest priority on teaching and studying Buddhist texts. When Dromtönpa next met with this same practitioner, he found him studiously applying himself to learning Buddhist scriptures, to which he responded, “It is very good to study texts, but it is even better to practice Dharma.
In order to preserve the true meaning of Buddhism, many sincere practitioners today apply themselves to months or even years of meditation, practicing mindfulness many hours a day, or engaging in three-year retreats in which they practice a wide variety of Vajrayana meditations. When Dromtönpa for a third time came across the above practitioner, he found him immersed in meditation, to which he replied, “It is very good to practice meditation, but it is even better to practice Dharma.” When the meditator asked him how to do this, he responded, “Give up attachment to this life and let your mind become Dharma.”
The essential way to let one’s mind become Dharma is to realize uncontrived bodhichitta and thereby reach the initial stage of the Mahayana path of accumulation, the first of the five paths leading to perfect enlightenment. Bodhichitta becomes irreversible when it is supported with the insights gained from the four close applications of mindfulness, thus transforming “earth-like bodhichitta” into “gold-like bodhichitta.” With a foundation in shamatha, bodhichitta and insight, Vajrayana practice may indeed lead to the realization of perfect enlightenment in one lifetime. But without such a basis in mental stability, compassion and wisdom, talk of buddhahood in this or any other lifetime is nothing more than propaganda.
To realize authentic bodhichitta and going on to become a bodhisattva, many of the greatest scholars in the Buddhist tradition have taught that the mind must first be made thoroughly serviceable for spiritual practice by achieving shamatha, specifically access to the first dhyana (meditative stabilization). Although there isn’t full consensus on this point, all agree that a mind heavily prone to the attentional imbalances of excitation and laxity is unfit to realize the sublime states of bodhichitta and vipashyana (contemplative insight). So at least the partial development of shamatha is essential for developing both.
The fundamental structure of Buddhist practice, common to all schools of Buddhism, consists of the three sequential phases of ethics, samadhi and wisdom. Within the context of these three “higher trainings,” samadhi refers not only to the development of single-pointed attention, but also to other aspects of mental development, including the four immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity), renunciation, and within the Mahayana context, bodhichitta.
Among all the Buddha’s teachings recorded in the Pali canon, the shamatha practice most commonly emphasized is mindfulness of the breath, particularly for people whose minds are heavily agitated by involuntary thoughts. Compared to Indians living at the time of the Buddha or nomadic Tibetans living today, most of us can greatly benefit from such practice, which is specifically designed for people like us! The Buddha said of this practice, “Just as in the last month of the hot season, when a mass of dust and dirt has swirled up and a great rain cloud out of season disperses it and quells it on the spot, so too concentration by mindfulness of the breath, when developed and cultivated, is peaceful and sublime, an ambrosial dwelling, and it disperses and quells on the spot unwholesome states whenever they arise.” The very nature of such practice helps not only to bring calm and joy to the mind, but it also helps to bolster our “psychological immune system,” making the mind less vulnerable to mental afflictions.
More generally, the cultivation of shamatha leads to freedom from the five obscurations of (1) laxity and dullness, (2) uncertainty, (3) malice, (4) excitation and guilt, and (5) sensual craving. The Buddha declared, “So long as these five obscurations are not abandoned one considers himself as indebted, sick, in bonds, enslaved and lost in a desert track.” Indian Buddhist contemplatives discovered that these five obscurations are counteracted by the five factors of meditative stabilization. Specifically, (1) coarse examination counteracts laxity and dullness, (2) precise investigation counteracts uncertainty, (3) well-being counteracts malice, (4) bliss counteracts excitation and guilt, and (5) single-pointed attention counteracts sensual craving. It is fascinating to note that such non-discursive practice can be effective in overcoming sensual craving and malice, thereby serving as a basis for developing renunciation and compassion.
Shamatha practice that is not motivated by renunciation and bodhichitta may result in nothing more than a temporary alleviation of stress and agitation, and may even lead to self-centered complacency and unfortunate rebirths. With an authentic motivation, shamatha may actually enhance one’s renunciation and bodhichitta, kindling great inspiration for spiritual practice. Well motivated practice that is focused on external activities of the body and speech, including prostrations, circumambulations, and recitation of mantras and liturgies will have little benefit if the mind is distracted. As the Indian Bodhisattva Shantideva wrote, “The Omniscient One stated that all recitations and austerities, even though performed for a long time, are actually useless if the mind is on something else or is dull.”
The structure of the Mahayana path consists of the six perfections of generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiasm, meditative stabilization and wisdom. The practice of shamatha is included in the cultivation of meditative stabilization (dhyana), and it is based on the prior development of the first four perfections. This highlights the importance of cultivating an ethical basis for practice and wholesome states of mind before seeking to achieve single-pointed concentration.
Roughly 1500 years after the time of the Buddha (563-483 BCE), the great Indian Buddhist master Atisha (980-1054) composed the first “lam-rim,” or teachings on the stages of the path, specifically for Tibetans. This structure, which was subsequently adopted by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, begins with guru yoga and culminates in the practice of vipashyana. For traditional Tibetans, raised in a Buddhist culture, with deep faith, and a sound understanding of Buddhism, guru yoga may well be practiced at the outset of the path for the sake of the many blessings such authentic practice brings. But in the modern secular world, an initial focus on guru yoga, especially with the emphasis on the perfect qualities of the guru, can lead to many problems, a point that has been discussed frequently by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For people with little faith or understanding, or who are new to Buddhism, it may be best initially to focus upon one’s guru simply as a representative, or emissary, of the Buddha. As one ventures in Mahayana practice, one may view one’s guru as if he or she were a buddha. Finally, on the basis of deep faith and understanding of the teachings on the buddha-nature and emptiness, one may focus on the Vajrayana practice of viewing one’s guru as an actual buddha, while simultaneously developing divine pride and pure perception of all phenomena.
While there are many methods for developing shamatha, each with its special advantages, two methods are particularly emphasized in the Mahamudra tradition because of their great advantages for fathoming the nature of consciousness. The eleventh-century Indian Mahasiddhi Maitripa, who taught Marpa, the Tibetan translator and founder of the Kagyü lineage, describes the first method of focusing on thoughts as follows:
“In relation to the excessive proliferation of conceptualization, including afflictions such as the five poisons or the three poisons, thoughts that revolve in subject-object duality, thoughts such as those of the ten virtues, the six perfections or the ten perfections – whatever wholesome and unwholesome thoughts arise – steadily and non-conceptually observe their nature. By so doing, they are calmed in non-grasping; clear and empty awareness vividly arises, without grasping; and it arises in the nature of self-liberation, in which it recognizes itself. Again, direct the attention to whatever thoughts arise, and without acceptance or rejection, let it recognize its own nature. In this way implement the practical instructions on transforming ideation into the path.”
Here are his instructions on the second method which focuses on the absence of thoughts:
“With the body possessing the seven attributes of Vairochana, sit upon a soft cushion in a solitary, darkened room. Vacantly direct the eyes into the intervening vacuity in front of you. See that the three conceptualizations of the past, future and present, as well as wholesome, unwholesome and ethically neutral thoughts, together with all the causes, assemblies and dissolutions of thoughts of the three times are completely cut off. Bring no thoughts to mind. Let the mind, like a cloudless sky, be clear, empty and evenly devoid of grasping; and settle it in utter vacuity. By doing so, the shamatha quiescence of joy, clarity, and non-conceptuality arises. Examine whether or not this entails attachment, hatred, clinging, grasping, laxity or excitation, and recognize the difference between virtues and vices.”
There are two traditional approaches to the path. One entails first gaining a thorough understanding of Buddhist doctrine, including the view of emptiness, and on that basis devoting oneself to meditation. According to this tradition, one practices shamatha only after studying Maitreya’s treatise revealed to Asanga, the The Ornament for Clear Realization, and one practices vipashyana only after a careful study of Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the “Middle Way.” According to the second tradition, one may seek the view of emptiness on the basis of first achieving shamatha. In his text The Highway of the Jinas: A Root Text on the Precious Geluk-Kagyü Mahamudra Tradition, Panchen Lozang Chökyi Gyaltsen, tutor to the Fifth Dalai Lama, exemplifies the latter tradition when he gives the following quintessential shamatha teachings, in which he synthesizes the two methods cited above by Maitripa:
“Of the two approaches of seeking to meditate on the basis of the view and seeking the view on the basis of meditation, the following accords with the latter approach. On a comfortable cushion for the cultivation of meditative stabilization, assume the sevenfold posture and with the nine-fold breathing clear out stale vital energies. Carefully distinguish between the radiant purity of awareness and its defilements, and with a pristinely virtuous mind begin by taking refuge and cultivating bodhichitta. Meditate on the profound path of guru yoga, and after making hundreds of heartfelt supplications, let the guru dissolve into yourself.
Do not modify the nature of evanescent appearances with thoughts such as hopes and fears, but rest for a while in unwavering meditative equipoise. This is not a state in which your attention is blanked out, as if you had fainted or fallen asleep. Rather, post the sentry of undistracted mindfulness and focus introspection on the movements of awareness. Focus closely on its nature of cognizance and luminosity, observing it nakedly. Whatever thoughts arise, recognize each one. Alternatively, like a participant in a duel, completely cut off any thoughts that arise; when there is stillness after they are banished, relax loosely, but without losing mindfulness. As it is said, ‘Focus closely and loosely relax – it is there that the mind is settled.’ Relax without wandering, as the saying goes, ‘When the mind that is tangled up in busyness loosens up, it undoubtedly frees itself.’
Whenever thoughts arise, if their nature is observed, they naturally disappear and a clear vacuity arises. Likewise, if the mind is examined when it is still, a vivid, unobscured, luminous vacuity is perceived, and this is known as ‘the fusion of stillness and motion.’ Whatever thoughts arise, do not block them, but recognizing their movements, focus on their nature – like a caged bird on a ship. Sustain your awareness as in the saying, ‘Like a raven that flies from a ship, circles around, and alights aboard once again.’
The nature of meditative equipoise is not obscured by anything, but is limpid and clear. Not established as anything physical, it is a clear vacuity like space. Allowing anything to arise, it is vividly awake. Such is the nature of the mind. This is superbly witnessed with direct perception, yet it cannot be grasped as ‘this’ or demonstrated with words. ‘Whatever arises, rest loosely, without grasping:’ nowadays, for the most part, contemplatives of Tibet uniformly proclaim this as practical advice for achieving enlightenment. However, I, Chökyi Gyaltsen, declare this to be an exceptionally skillful method for novices to achieve mental stability and to identify the relative nature of the mind.”
The relative nature of the mind is sheer luminosity and cognizance, which are the defining characteristics of consciousness. The Buddha also referred to this as the sign (nimitta) of the mind. He declared that if one cultivates the four close applications of mindfulness without the mind being concentrated and without having abandoned the impurities, one will not apprehend this essential nature of the mind. These teachings on shamatha provide a basis not only for the cultivation of the four immeasurables and bodhichitta, but also for the cultivation of insight through the fundamental practices of four close applications of mindfulness.
Alan Wallace, Ph.D. is a dynamic lecturer, progressive scholar and one of the most prolific writers and translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. He continually seeks innovative ways to integrate Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science to advance the study of the mind.
4Karma Chagmé, A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga, Commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche, trans. B. Alan Wallace (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2009), 80.
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If you listen to the advice of the Buddha – who has only compassion for sentient beings and no trace of self-centred mind; who is perfect in power, wisdom and compassion; whose holy mind is omniscient – all you get is benefit.
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