In my quest to go postmetaphysical a few of my several concerns follow: 1) How to interpret states and stages of consciousness; 2) How to practice secular meditation free from metaphysical baggage; and 3) How to share the former in a contemporary, western community with a focus on some form of liberation, or at least alleviation, of human suffering. Stephen Batchelor has been invaluable in this quest. (See our prior discussion of him here.) One of his essays is instructive along these lines, "The agnostic Buddhist: a secular vision of dharma practice." Here are a few select excerpts:


It is important to distinguish between those questions that are addressed by the core teachings of the Buddha, and those which are not really of central concern. I was listening on the radio not long ago in England to a discussion about religious belief. All of the participants were engaged in a heated discussion about the possibility of miracles. It is generally assumed that being a religious person entails believing certain things about the nature of oneself and reality in general that are beyond the reach of reason and empirical verification. What happened before birth, what will happen after death, the nature of the soul and its relation to the body: these are first and foremost religious questions. And the Buddha was not interested in them. But if we look at Buddhism historically, we'll see that it has continuously tended to lose this agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion, with all of the usual dogmatic belief systems that religions tend to have. So, ironically, if you were to go to many Asian countries today, you would find that the monks and priests who control the institutional bodies of Buddhism would have quite clear views on whether the world is eternal or not, what happens to the Buddha after death, the status of the mind in relation to the body, and so on.


So, what would an agnostic Buddhist be like today? How would we even start to think about such a stance? Firstly, I would suggest that an agnostic Buddhist would not regard the Dharma or the teachings of the Buddha as a source which would provide answers to questions of where we are going, where we are coming from, what is the nature of the universe, and so on. In this sense, an agnostic Buddhist would not be a believer with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena and in this sense would not be religious. I've recently started saying to myself: "I'm not a religious person," and finding that to be strangely liberating. You don't have to be a religious [or spiritual] person in order to practice the Dharma.


Secondly, an agnostic Buddhist would not look to the Dharma for metaphors of consolation. This is another great trait of religions: they provide consolation in the face of birth and death; they offer images of a better afterlife; they offer the kind of security that can be achieved through an act of faith. I'm not interested in that. The Buddha's teachings are confrontative; they're about truth-telling, not about painting some pretty picture of life elsewhere. They're saying: "Look, existence is painful." This is what is distinctive about the Buddhist attitude: it starts not from the promise of salvation, but from valuing that sense of existential anguish we tend either to ignore, deny or avoid through distractions.


"Emptiness" is a singularly unappetising term. I don't think it was ever meant to be attractive. Herbert Guenther once translated it as "the open dimension of being," which sounds a lot more appealing than "emptiness." "Transparency" was a term I played with for a while, which also makes emptiness sound more palatable. Yet we have to remember that even two thousand years ago Nagarjuna was having to defend himself against the nihilistic implications of emptiness. Many of the chapters in his philosophical works start with someone objecting: "This emptiness is a terrible idea. It undermines all grounds for morality. It undermines everything the Buddha was speaking about." Clearly the word did not have a positive ring back then either. I suspect that it might have been used quite consciously as an unappealing term, which cuts through the whole fantasy of consolation that one might expect a religion to provide. Perhaps we need to recover this cutting-edge of emptiness, its unappealing aspect.


I like to think of the Buddha's awakening under the Bodhi tree not as some kind of transcendental absorption, but as a moment of total shock. Neils Bohr once said about quantum mechanics: "If you're not shocked by quantum theory, then you don't understand it." I think we could say the same about emptiness: If you're not shocked by emptiness, then you haven't understood it.


Now, whether we follow the Indo-Tibetan analytical approach or the Zen approach of asking a koan like "What is this?," such meditative inquiry leads to a mind that becomes more still and clear. But paradoxically this does not mean that things then become more clear-cut, that you reach some final understanding of who you are or of what makes the universe tick. Because, at the same time as such things become more vivid and clear, they also become more baffling. One encounters, as it were, the sheer mystery of things. A deep agnosticism would be one founded on this kind of unknowing: the acknowledgement that, in terms of what life really is, I really do not know. And in that unknowing there is already a quality of questioning, of perplexity. And as that perplexity becomes stabilised through meditation, one enters increasingly into a world that is mysterious, magical in a sense, and not containable by narrow ideas and concepts.


But this is not where the practice ends. This is only half the project. What we also discover in this open space, in this mysterious experience of non-self, are the wellsprings of creativity and imagination.... The process of articulating the Dharma goes on and on according to the needs of the different historical situations that it encounters. We could read the whole history of Buddhism, from the moment of the Buddha's awakening until now, as a process of seeking to imagine a way to respond both wisely and compassionately to the situation at hand.


All of us have experiences of what it means to imagine and create something. It struck me very forcibly one day…that preparing myself to put into words what had not yet been put into words was to enter a very similar frame of mind to that of sitting on a cushion in a zendo, asking: "What is this?" The creative process seemed very comparable to the meditative process. Awakening is only complete -- in the same way that a work of art is only complete -- when it finds an expression, a form, that translates that experience in a way that makes it accessible to others. That again is the balance between wisdom and compassion. The creative process of expressing the Dharma is not just a question of duplicating in words something etched somewhere in the privacy of my soul. The living process of understanding is formed through the encounter with another person, with the world. You've probably all had the experience of someone coming to you in a state of distress and blurting out their problems, and you suddenly find yourself saying things that you were quite unaware you knew. The process of awakening is one of valuing and connecting with that capacity to respond in authentic ways to the suffering of others. The imagination is the bridge between contemplative experience and the anguish of the world. By valuing imagination, we value the capacity of each person, each community, to imagine and create themselves anew.


In the contemporary world Buddhism encounters a culture that places a positive value on the power of each individual's creativity and imagination. It's interesting that in most Buddhist traditions these things are not strongly encouraged, or, if they are, it's usually only within highly formalised settings. I like to think of Dharma practice today as venturing into a world of imagination, one in which each individual, each community, seeks to express and to articulate their vision in terms of the particular needs of their own situation. Buddhism would then become less and less the preserve of an institution, and more and more an experience that is owned by ordinary people in ordinary communities.


Of course, there are dangers here. But these are hardly new. Historically, Buddhism has always had to find ways of responding effectively to the danger of becoming too acculturated, of becoming too absorbed into the assumptions of the host culture. Certainly such a danger exists here in the West: Buddhism might, for example, tend to become a kind of souped-up psychotherapy. But there's the equal danger of Buddhism holding on too fiercely to its Asian identity and remaining a marginal interest amongst a few eccentrics. Somehow we have to find a middle way between these two poles, and this is a challenge which is not going to be worked out by academics or Buddhist scholars; it's a challenge that each of us is asked to meet in our own practice from day to day.

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Will you be able to share this paper with us or will you have to sign away its copyright to "the conference?"
I just created a new thread, to which I've attached a copy of the paper, in case you'd like to read it. :-)

theurj said:
Will you be able to share this paper with us or will you have to sign away its copyright to "the conference?"
We saw above how Wilber formulates emptiness as the absolute pole of a duality. Here are a few words by Batchelor on emptiness:

''Emptiness is a confusing term. Although used as an abstract noun, it does not in any way denote an abstract thing or state. It 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. Nor do things 'arise' from emptiness and 'dissolve' back into it as though it were some kind of formless, cosmic stuff. These are just some of the ways emptiness has been appropriated as a metaphor of metaphysical and religious consolation.

"Emptiness is a starkly unappetizing term used to undercut yearnings for such consolation. Yet ironically it has been called into the service of such longings. Shunyata (emptiness) is rendered into English as 'the Void' by translators who overlook the fact that the term is neither prefixed by a definite article ('the') nor exalted with a capital letter, both of which are absent in classical Asian languages. From here it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to equating emptiness with such metaphysical notions as 'the Absolute,' 'the Truth,' or even 'God.' The notion of emptiness falls prey to the very habit of mind it was intended to undermine."
Given the categories of religious scholarship you discussed in the conference paper I thought I’d offer the following from Batchelor. How would you classify him Balder, given the information in this thread?

“The very fact of seeing Buddhism as a contingent, historical process might already be affecting the ways in which the dharma assumes form in the modern world. We may be learning to celebrate the diversity of traditions rather than to insist that each school be measured against the others on a hierarchical scale of authenticity. Instead of gauging the success of Buddhism in terms of the mounting size of its achievements (numbers of followers, sales of books, extent of properties, height of statues, etc.), we might come to see it in terms of individual fulfillment and empowerment, the emergence of small-scale, autonomous communities, and genuine commitment to a beginner’s mind. Far from endorsing an 'anything goes' pluralism, this historical and evolutionary perspective also recognizes how the survival of a tradition depends on its ability to meet and respond to criticism both from within and outside its own ranks. In an increasingly interconnected and transparent world, no form of Buddhism can afford to be an island.”
Hi, Ed, that's a good question. My initial impression, from the quote, was that he was suggesting something like the second-generation pluralism or post-pluralism I was describing in my paper. So, I looked around on the web and found another discussion of his, in which he also appears to be arguing for a non-relativistic pluralism. Based on this, I'd say, yes, I think his position is similar to the neo- or post-pluralist position I advocated in my paper: he rejects modernist inclusivism, and would probably have the same criticisms of the identist pluralism of John Hick (and Fritjof Schuon and Huston Smith) that I described in my paper (particularly given his agnosticism and eschewal of metaphysical ultimates).
While such generalizing categories are at time helpful to get a sense of things, no one's entire worldview fits nicely into one of them. Hence there are some views that fit into one box in one way but in another box in another way, with lots of hybrids and cross-overs. There could even be a view that was both inclusive and exclusive, depending on the given line or context, a point made repeatedly in the "real and false reason" and "transitional structure" threads. Hence my confusion in trying to pin down any view into one category, which is sometimes what I sense is the unconscious motivation with such "theories of everything."

Another point is that it also depends on who is doing the categorizing as to which view will fit into which box or boxes, i.e., who is doing the "kosmic addressing." For example, Wilber would likely put Batchelor into the green meme relativist box, although I have no textual evidence that he's ever said so.* And from our discussion you get the sense, as do I, that Batchelor general frame is not so defined. And again one issue is which overall, general view is relatively (if not absolutely) "better" or "more inclusive" or "more comprehensive" or at least more useful, and it what contexts? Or in the case of those with an IPS agenda, which is more postmetaphysical. Or perhaps which is so in one way while not in another, allowing for all of the above.

* Wilber did say a lot about Boomeritis (green relativist) Buddhism though in Chapter 5 of Integral Spirituality. And part of what makes it so is its unacceptance of Wilber's duality of "emptiness and view are not two" veiw, which view is supposed to be integral or non-dual.
Yes, these labels are broadly useful, but I agree that there are lots of hybrids and cross-overs and lines can be pretty blurry, clarifying differently in different contexts. Among the "differential pluralists" that Griffin identifies, for instance, there are already a number of different versions of that -- some which deny an ontological ultimate, but posit a near-universal soteriological one (like Ferrer, who stresses the "common ocean" of "liberation from self-centeredness"); or contrarily, who posit an ontological ultimate but insist there are multiple soteriologies (e.g., some Christians who believe that the "Trinitarian" nature of Godhead allows for different types of salvation). Heim, as you saw in my paper, juxtaposes inclusivism and pluralism; D'Costa insists that pluralism often amounts to a covert form of exclusivism, and therefore moves to re-assert an exclusivistic approach without apology. Etc. And, as you say, an approach which is "pluralist" in one regard, or in relation to one particular concern, may be exclusivist or inclusivist in others. (Incidentally, some of the "post-pluralists" I mentioned have begun to call into question the validity of the basic exclusive / inclusive / pluralistic trichotomy.)

About Kosmic addressing, yes, I think you have a problem if you take kosmic addresses to be inherent properties of the objects so identified. At some point in my Integral degree program, I read a study that was done relatively recently that demonstrated the ambiguity of the assessment of the "address" of various statements. They took a range of sentences and had people identify what "level" they thought the statement was coming from. The results were all over the map.
To contrast further the "nondual" and "emptiness" between Wilber and Batchelor, here is more from Integral Spirituality:

Chapter 2, The relation of the different lines to each other

“This happens to fit nicely with the Madhyamaka-Yogachara Buddhist view of
consciousness as emptiness or openness. Consciousness is not anything itself, just the degree of
openness or emptiness, the clearing in which the phenomena of the various lines appear (but
consciousness is not itself a phenomena—it is the space in which phenomena arise).”

Chapter 3, Phenomenology, felt experience and states of consciousness

“…according the great wisdom traditions, all men and women have available to them at least 5 great natural states of consciousness, all of which can be directly experienced:… causal-formless states, such as deep dreamless sleep and types of formless meditation and experiences of vast openness or emptiness;...ever-present Nondual awareness, which is not so much a state as the ever-present
ground of all states (and can be ‘experienced’ as such).”

Chapter 4, Zones #1 and #2

“…grounded in a Freedom and an Emptiness that never changes, that is timeless and eternal, the great Ground and Openness of the entire evolving display, that nonetheless is Witness to its own display evolving.”

Appendix II, The sliding scale of enlightenment

“Enlightenment is a union of both Emptiness and Form, or a union of Freedom and Fullness. To realize infinite Emptiness is to be free from all finite things, free from all pain, all suffering, all limitation, all qualities—the via negativa that soars to a transcendental freedom from the known, a nirvikalpa
samadhi beyond desire and death, beyond pain and time, longing and remorse, fear and hope, a
timeless Dharmakaya of the Unborn, the great Ayin or Abyss that is free from all finite qualities
whatsoever (including that one).”

It is obvious that according to Wilber a turquoise altitude view of nonduality must agree with the above descriptions. Whereas to me it’s a “virtually unchanged” traditional, metaphysical and hence most definitely not turquoise or postformal view.
Chris Dierkes did an interesting review of Batchelor's latest book here. He sees various worldview elements represented in Batchelor, from modern to pomo to post-pomo depending on the specific issue. As to whether I agree on Dierke's specific characterization per issue is one thing, but the overall idea jibes with what I've been saying about worldviews not being monolithic within an indivdual, as if one were "at" a particular level or had just one particular worldview.
Along the lines above on the differences that constitute the two truths, nonduality and emptiness see the essay I referenced recently here. In a discussion on this topic Jackson says:

"The great Madhyamaka outlook associated with certain Tibetan proponents of other-emptiness...[assert that] buddhahood is empty only of those conventionalities, while its natural purity, luminosity, and gnosis are eternally established and independently existent; thus... [it] involves negating the self-existence of conventional entities and concepts, but not of the ultimate buddha-mind" (232).

Granted some, including Balder, have argued that Dzogchen for example does not adhere to this other-emptiness doctrine. But Thakchoe (cited above) says of Gorampa on this topic:

"Gorampa argues that ultimate truth is ontologically unconditioned, and hence it is not a dependently arisen phenomenon; it is distinct from empirical phenomenon in every sense of the is an absolutely timeless and eternally unchanging phenomenon" (73).

And Thakchoe reminds us that Mipham*, the eminent Nyingma-Dzogchen proponent, is in agreement with Gorampa on this (42). As are more contemporary modern monists like Murti, on whom Wilber draws heavily in interpreting Nagarjuna.

* in footnote 170 Thakchoe says: "Mipham not only attempts to show that ultimate truth is the only truth but also takes one step further to show that ultimate truth is an absolute, therefore truly existent" (188).

Something I came across this morning, from the Jan-March edition of Mandala magazine, a reply by Stephen Batchelor to Alan Wallace's letter in the previous edition "Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist".

An Open Letter To B. Alan Wallace

By Stephen Batchelor

Dear Alan,

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.

Thanks for this lol. This is one reason I prefer Batchelor in my quest of postmeta "religion."

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