‘After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age’ by Stephen Batchelor (Yale University Press, 2015) – Review by Robert M Ellis
Stephen Batchelor is an established Buddhist teacher and author who has been developing more critical and adequate accounts of Buddhism since ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’ in 1997. He has been interviewed 3 times on MWS podcasts, and his previous book ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ is reviewed here. His latest book is a much more substantial and comprehensive take on his critical and experiential approach to Buddhism than his previous ones. Interleaving stories from the Buddha’s contemporaries with chapters on areas of Buddhist teaching, he undertakes a very helpful process of sorting the material in the Pali Canon: the progressive and experiential from the metaphysical and dogmatic.
Batchelor’s interpretation of Buddhism avoids all explicit appeals to authority, and is highly compatible with the Middle Way: the Middle Way being (at least in practice) a central part of his thinking – at least as evidenced by the conversation I had with him on this podcast. I have always felt that Batchelor’s heart is in the right place, but have never failed to be disappointed by his previous books. This was often due to what I have perceived as a failure to develop promising ideas in a convincing or self-critical way – as opposed to just telling a good story, which he can do well. He is also prone to very uncritical use of postmodernists and other modern Western philosophers. But this book goes a long way towards remedying those previous limitations. His discussions of Buddhist teachings go a lot further towards forming a convincing interconnected whole: both as practical interpretations and as interpretations of the Pali Canon. The postmodernists do get an occasional mention, but the very detail of the engagement with Buddhism means that Batchelor is obliged to draw his insights from there rather than anywhere else. The storytelling is merged with the discussion in a way that left me with a much more vivid appreciation of several key characters who interacted with the Buddha.
Of course, I do have reservations about the whole project of presenting the Middle Way entirely in terms of Buddhism. One of these is how quickly and easily it can slip into an assumption that Buddhism somehow owns the Middle Way: an assumption that I expect Batchelor would disavow, but he also seems to make from time to time. There is also the danger of question-begging that arises when any author attempts to justify a position from complex and ambiguous sacred texts: on what basis could the interpretation have been selected except prior beliefs about what should be selected? I am determined not to get involved in any scholarly debates about this book, and to remain totally agnostic about whether it in any sense presents a ‘true’ picture of the Buddha, after having recently got rather more involved than I initially intended with Christopher Beckwith’s scholarly contentions. All I can say on this score is that Batchelor’s picture of the Buddha is fresh and coherent enough to be inspiring, but that its justification cannot be a historical one to the extent that Batchelor seems to want.
There are some reasons for focusing on the Middle Way of the Buddha. I fully accept that people need to work with, and perhaps in the terms of, the traditions that they find themselves embedded in, but to see the Middle Way only in terms of Buddhism (even with the dogmas extracted) actually often seems to undermine Westerners’ appreciation of the ways it can be found elsewhere: for example, in scientific tradition, in moral and political thinking, in Christian mysticism or in Jungian psychology. It is not as though most Western Buddhists were born into Buddhism or are very deeply entrenched in it in cultural terms. Rather, modern culture is plural (and all the richer for that) and our overriding understanding of the Middle Way should reflect this. However, if one is to take this approach, and to limit oneself in such a way both in terms of the cultural and intellectual resources one applies to understanding the Middle Way, it is hard to imagine it being done much better than Batchelor has here (apart from three key criticisms I have of the book, which I will come to later).
One thing I very much appreciated in this book was Batchelor’s willingness to unceremoniously slaughter numerous holy cows that have long cluttered the fields of Buddhism. The ‘Four Noble Truths’ become the ‘Four Tasks’, which I have discussed in more detail in a recent blog. The ‘Two Truths’ are recognised as unhelpful polarising metaphysics. ‘Craving’ is interpreted as ‘reactivity’, ‘Nirvana’ not as an ultimate state but as an interval of experience without reactivity. Karma and rebirth are given deservedly short shrift, apart from whatever elements can be interpreted pragmatically or symbolically. Traditional Buddhism is shown to have done a lot more ‘dumbing down’ than secular mindfulness will ever be responsible for (think of mantras and prayer wheels). The avoidance of ultimate views about the self is interpreted in a way compatible with our experience of shifting individuality rather than ‘no self’. Canonical references to ‘the unconditioned’ are understood as merely lacking a particular (‘reactive’) form of conditioning. Throughout, Batchelor engages in a winnowing process: the teachings that are not justifiable in terms of evidence and experience (and thus not compatible with the Middle Way) are sorted from those that are. This is the kind of sorting process I tried to engage in myself in ‘The Trouble with Buddhism’, using only practical philosophy, back in 2008: but Batchelor has done it through the more far-reaching process of re-interpreting the account of the Buddha in the texts.
This process is also given another dimension by the use of selected figures from the Pali Canon for special attention. The story of Mahanama allows the exploration of political themes, Pasenadi the perils of power, Sunakkhata the dangers of yearning for metaphysical certainties, Jivaka the relationship between the Buddha’s teaching and medicine, and Ananda the issues of succession and transmission after the Buddha’s death. Connecting them all together is the historical Buddha, Gotama himself, who is presented as a much more human and fallible figure than the tradition makes him. It is Gotama who had to keep on the right side of kings who could destroy his community without losing integrity and had to make sure his followers were supported without entirely giving way to the popular desire for magic and dogma. It is this Gotama who admits to speaking intuitively rather than with forethought, perhaps even surprising himself with the insight of his answers. It is Gotama who calls his cousin Devadatta a ‘lick-spittle’, apparently quite human enough to lose his temper.
After studying many key passages of the Pali Canon earlier in my life, but very much moving on from Buddhism and focusing my studies on other sources of inspiration and insight in recent years, I have to admit that this book has almost got me interested in the historical Buddha again. Batchelor has perhaps demonstrated that there are ways of reading the Pali Canon that are not either the tedious repetition of well-worn Buddhist themes, nor merely ad hoc reconstructions of material picked out in bad faith as proof texts. It is the humanity and complexity of Batchelor’s Gotama that I found far more engaging than most Buddhist accounts, precisely because he has let go of a lot of the usual idealisation. There is no genuine inspiration, in my experience, without the Shadow (which is why I used to get so bored with the Buddha) but Gotama’s shadow could be readily seen in the light of Batchelor’s balanced scrutiny.
However, I cannot conclude without also expressing my reservations about this book. These are three: its lack of explicit treatment of the Middle Way, its limited exploration of ‘reactivity’, and the title.
The lack of explicit discussion of the Middle Way is very puzzling. As already mentioned, the Middle Way is in fact used throughout and often mentioned in passing (always without capitals, but that is a minor issue). However, it is not listed in the index, nor ever properly discussed in its own right. Every other major teaching of Gotama is discussed, and Gotama’s explicit teaching of the Middle Way is translated from the ‘Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma Sutta’ (‘The Four Tasks’) in an appendix, but there is no discussion of what it means. Unlike with the Four Noble Truths, there is no attempt to differentiate metaphysical versions of the Middle Way from pragmatic accounts of it, or to distinguish what its meaning and application might mean in the modern context. Given that the Middle Way is used throughout, Batchelor has thus omitted the cornerstone from his doctrinal discussion. This must surely be deliberate, but I really cannot see the motivation for it. It does seem to fit with a widespread traditional Buddhist neglect of the Middle Way and reluctance to explore its meaning properly: in a recent quick survey of around 60 Buddhist books with indexes on my shelves, only 25 were found to have ‘Middle Way’ or ‘Middle Path’ (whether capitalised or not) even listed in the index, with at least half of these only offering a single entry.
This neglect of the Middle Way can also be closely related to another lacuna in Batchelor’s book of great practical importance. In interpreting the Second ‘Task’, Batchelor usefully interprets ‘craving’ or tanha as ‘reactivity’, and recognises the usual Buddhist treatment of desire (whereby it is eliminated in the state of nirvana) as contradictory and nonsensical. However, he does not then go on to say anything much about the meaning of ‘reactivity’. We may feel that we know reactivity when we experience it: for example as an unreflective feeling of annoyance or lust. However, there are many other much more debatable cases. How does reactivity relate to, say religious piety, or concern for one’s children, or self-preservation? In any of these kinds of states we need much clearer tools to identify what is ‘reactive’ from what is not, and to help alert us to self-deception.
That’s where I think the lack of discussion of the Middle Way carries a price. For if Batchelor had been willing to broach the question of what exactly it is we are trying to avoid on either side when we are following the Middle Way, he could probably have cast a lot more light on the nature of reactivity in the process. The positions I have arrived at on this will probably need more explanation beyond this review, but here they are in summary: I think desires are just energy, but it is judgements and beliefs that channel that energy in practice. When our beliefs are absolute, they become rigid in a way that creates repression and conflict between desires that are associated with them, and it is this that disrupts meditation or other focused states. It is thus not desire itself that is reactive, but beliefs that are absolutised, and we can work with those beliefs at the point of judgement to make them provisional rather than absolute. I think it would be quite possible to unpack this approach to the nature of reactivity in terms that build on the Buddha’s treatment of the Middle Way and of craving in the Pali Canon, and I’d be very interested to see Batchelor’s interpretation of them: but I don’t think he’s going to get near to a fuller explanation of reactivity unless he looks more closely at the nature of the Middle Way first – whether in traditional Buddhist terms or in terms of the psychological language that I more generally prefer.
Finally, there is the matter of the title. I’m afraid that either Batchelor or his publisher do not seem to be very good at titles. The last one portrayed him as an atheist when he is actually an agnostic. This one is equally misleading. ‘After Buddhism’ suggests that we have left Buddhism behind and are looking for something else to fill the gap, which is really not what this book is about. In fact the book is entirely about Buddhism, or at least the Buddha as Batchelor wants to portray him, before the dogmatists got hold of him or it – so ‘Before Buddhism’ would be a lot more accurate than ‘After Buddhism’. But perhaps we should blame postmodernist influence again, as postmodernists often seem to go in for titles starting with ‘After…’, suggesting a slightly Whiggish belief that we all know better now that we’re ‘after’ whatever it was (postmodernists are rather surprisingly prone to Whiggishness). The title does the book no favours: but in the end, the book is a great deal better than its title promises.
I do hope that, one day, Batchelor will write a book that does more justice to the Middle Way in its own right, and no longer appears in danger of conflating it with various kinds of relativist philosophy. We really need his acumen to be brought to bear on the Buddhist concepts of ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’, on what metaphysics really means, on moral justification in Buddhism, and on the relationship between Buddhist and scientific approaches to provisionality. But in the meantime, do read this book, especially if you are a Buddhist or have an interest in Buddhism. Whatever my reservations, I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the best book on the teachings of the Buddha that I’ve ever read.