Monday, March 29, 2010

Stephen Batchelor - Deconstructing Buddhism

I found this via Justin Whitaker's excellent blog, American Buddhist Perspective. Some comments below.

Stephen Batchelor: Deconstructing Buddhism

Via the great

Deconstructing Buddhism (Part 1) 03/20/10[Download][Play]1:23:12

Deconstructing Buddhism (Part 2) 03/20/10[Download][Play]34:17

Deconstructing Buddhism (Part 3) 03/20/10[Download][Play]1:30:33

Deconstructing Buddhism (Part 4) 03/20/10[Download][Play]38:54

I recently wrote about Stephen Batchelor's new book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Here are some fresh talks he gave on his US book tour just last week. Looking forward to a listen.
I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, which has been a hot topic among Buddhists (and atheists).

I think Batchelor makes a good point in his book in pointing out that modern atheists are more aptly called anti-theists, in recognition of their nearly militant dislike and rejection of theism, which would allow atheism to assume its tradition meaning of non-theist. In his adoption of the term atheist (rather than the agnostic stance he took in Buddhism Without Beliefs, a book that was commissioned by Tricycle Books as an introductory book on Buddhist philosophy), Batchelor is reminding us that the Buddha did not teaching any theistic beliefs.

One of the crucial points Batchelor makes in this book is that much of the Mahayana and even a good portion of the Theravada texts are heavily influenced by the Hindu teachings that were the cultural context of the time. Batchelor's mission is to remove those influences (including karma and rebirth, AND the Vedanta notions of Atman and Brahman) which show their influence in so many of the commentaries and "revisions" of the original discourses of the Buddha. To this end, Batchelor offers (in an Appendix) his own translation of the initial teaching of Buddha, Turning the Wheel of Dhamma, which strips away anything from the original Pali that reflects Hindu beliefs.

I am very much in tune with Batchelor's agenda. His version of Buddhism feels most authentic to me. And it positions the Buddha within his cultural context -as a radical philosopher opposing most of the teachings of his time - much in the same way so many of us in the West have tried to position Jesus as the radical Jewish teacher that he was - stripping away the mythology that accrued to his teachings through the centuries.

Anyway, I will have more to say on this book in the future.


Anonymous said...

Here's the thing that always gets me about Batchelor: karma and rebirth didn't "accrue" to the Buddha's teachings over centuries of cultural influence; they were present from the very beginning. The Buddha taught these doctrines as an integral part of the Dharma. The Four Noble Truths, the 12 links of depedendent arising, etc.--these all rely on the doctrines of karma and rebirth. In fact, given the Buddhist emphasis on anatman and, in the Mahayana, emptiness, when you remove karma and rebirth, there's no ontology capable of supporting Buddhist ethics. Without these, it's nihilism. So practice what you want, but don't call it Buddhism. That's just dishonest.

WH said...

I appreciate your argument, Anonymous, but to say that the Buddha taught these things is to ignore the fact that his teachings were passed down orally for years before they were written down - and more than likely the Buddha was as much a rebel toward Hindu beliefs as Jesus was toward Jewish beliefs.

Batchelor argues that much of what we think of as the Buddha's original teachings about karma and rebirth were added later by those who eventually recorded the teachings. There is plenty of reason to believe he is correct.

In my opinion, if we hold to the four noble truths and the eightfold path, then we can call ourselves Buddhists.

On the other hand, if traditional Buddhists want to exclude us, that's cool - no worries. It's all impermanent.


Anonymous said...

Well, the quest to find the "historical" Jesus is a notoriously murky endeavor, so I'm not sure Jesus is the best example. In many respects he seems to be quite the orthodox Jew, albeit with a healthy disdain for the corruption of 1st-century Palestinian society. Most of his sayings are either quotes taken directly from Jewish scripture, or they can be found in rabbinical tradition preceding Jesus. So he didn't actually do anything very radical or rebellious.

More than that, though, how many scholars think that the Buddha didn't teach karma and rebirth? I'm asking sincerely; I don't know the answer to this question. But my feeling from interacting with Buddhist studies scholars is that the consensus is he probably did teach those doctrines, but altered the content of them, just as we see in the sutras.

There are many versions of the oral tradition that were written down, with various degrees of difference between them, but all surviving textual lineages maintain these two doctrines. The idea that such a huge evolutionary change in the Buddha's doctrine would become canonical in all 18 early Buddhist schools requires a leap that needs substantial evidence to justify it. What's more, the Dharma kind of "hangs together" as a logical whole with karma and rebirth; I think this is not the case when they are removed. I mean, the whole idea is to escape the uncontrollable round of suffering, death, and birth.

Unfortunately, saying that the Buddha was a "rebel" is not really evidence, but rhetoric. It remains mere conjecture. It's like saying Jesus didn't really believe in God because he rebelled against the Jewish culture of his day. The problem is, Jesus always talked about God.

This is not a matter of exclusion. In Western societies, there are already all sorts of misconceptions about what Buddhism is and what Buddhists believe, one of which is that they are quasi-secularist, moral relativists with a laissez-faire attitude to religious belief and ethics. "Traditional" Buddhists, as you call us, face an uphill battle in presenting the Dharma as the Buddha taught it, especially when revisionists like Stephen Batchelor are so successful spreading their gospel. I think it's fair to ask that you not call your beliefs "Buddhist" if you make enormous revisions to the Buddha's teachings based not on historical evidence, but on modern intellectual prejudices.

Anonymous said...

can we PLEASE stop talking about the "original" teachings of the Buddha? There is no such knowable thing. Does SB consider that the Buddha came from this culture that he is removing? Does SB consider that what he sees as culture and removes is another person's reality and its removal an expression of SB's culture? I have no problem with him doing constructive Buddhist theology, but please, this obsession with origins and an objective purity beyond "culture" is just repeating the same mistakes of the first Western Buddhist studies scholars: "I have taken your texts, filtered them according to my interests and beliefs, and now I know your religion better than you do, and in fact, you have got it all wrong, have mucked it up with culture." I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know if this is what he is doing exactly, but it sure sounded that way when I heard him talk this fall to a humanist group. This is--obviously, I think--very problematic.

-Andrew M