Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
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.
Will you be able to share this paper with us or will you have to sign away its copyright to "the conference?"
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".
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.