The MWS podcast 87: Stephen Batchelor on ‘After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

The Buddhist scholar and author Stephen Batchelor talks to Susan Averbach about his new book After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age. He begins by explaining why it’s important for him to legitimize his teaching with early sources. After giving an overview of the book they then move on to discussing whether the Middle Way can or should be promoted beyond the Buddhist tradition. Finally Stephen outlines a new initiative he has become involved in, The Bodhi College , an ethical and philosophical framework for those practising meditation and the Dharma in today’s world by drawing on the early teachings of the Buddha before they became codified into the doctrines of the different Buddhist traditions.

Here’s also an article Susan Averbach has written about the podcast on her blog

MWS Podcast 87: Stephen Batchelor as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_87_Stephen_Batchelor

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

One thought on “The MWS podcast 87: Stephen Batchelor on ‘After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

  1. Thanks to Susan and Barry for producing this podcast, and I’m also grateful for Stephen’s encouraging words about the society towards the end. I haven’t yet had chance to read Stephen’s book, which is being issued much later in the UK than the US, but I did want to comment on Stephen’s arguments at the beginning about the need to ground his approach in Buddhist texts. Obviously I disagree with him on this point.

    As he argues it here, at least, Stephen seems to be relying on a set of false dichotomies between full reliance on one tradition, on the one hand, and a failure to acknowledge the role of tradition, on the other. He talks about Western individualism and the idea of ‘floating free’ of tradition as a ‘monad’, but freeing oneself from allegiance to tradition in no way requires that one adopts this opposing set of negative dogmas about tradition. We are obviously socially and historically situated beings, and a failure to recognise how much we are influenced by traditions would involve a repression of an important aspect of the conditions shaping us.

    Personally, I try to acknowledge my debt to traditions, including the Buddhist tradition, and also acknowledge the degree of inspiration I can get from traditional sources. But such an acknowledgement can be clearly separated from committing oneself to a particular tradition – which is what I have personally ceased to do since resigning from the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2008. I think Stephen is failing to acknowledge some of the negative effects, or at least dangers, of remaining committed to a particular tradition, and particularly of trying to justify one’s position in terms of a particular traditional set of texts, whilst trying to practise the Middle Way.

    One such danger is, ironically, a failure to acknowledge one’s debt to tradition – in this case, to traditions other than Buddhist tradition. Time and again in the Triratna Buddhist context I have come across very useful ideas and practices that are basically applications of Western psychology dressed up as Buddhism. It is insisted that this is ‘the Dharma’, but the tradition that formed it, historically speaking, is often scientific and psychological. At the same time science is often identified with ‘materialism’ so that it can be distanced, and its critical investigation of Buddhist claims not engaged with. This is just an example of how easily the scientific tradition to which we are so indebted can be sidelined – and the same can be said of western traditions of democracy, liberalism and toleration. without which Buddhism would not even be available in the West.

    Personally I was also brought up in a Christian household, and my cultural traditions are more deeply Christian rather than Buddhist. My experience of trying to be a Buddhist was often one of deracination: for example, my relationship to the symbolism of Buddhist art, even after studying it and trying visualisation practices, is very superficial compared to my intuitive relationship with Western Christian art. Usually I find that allegiance to one tradition involves to some degree denying one’s conditioning by other traditions – and the state of modernity, whether we like it or not, is that of multiple traditions.

    To appeal to a particular text that is given a particular status because of its role in tradition (rather than just because of its content) also seems to involve at least an implicit absolutisation of tradition, which constantly undermines the practice of the Middle Way itself. Western Buddhists tend to deny that they give the Pali Canon or other texts absolute status: but simply by giving one source so much attention solely on the basis of its authority they often neglect other sources, and set themselves up for confirmation bias. The effect of this is a repression of other sources, and a tendency to see the justification of the text in absolute rather than incremental terms. They are apparently determined to find the doctrines in the traditional texts, and thus often seem blind to ways in which the texts may be actually promoting the opposite. There is plenty of stuff in the Pali Canon that seems to be just dogma – e.g. concerning karma and rebirth. In the end one can only come back to one’s practical reasons for being inspired or instructed by a particular text, and I don’t see how one can practise the Middle Way in other ways whilst not applying it to one’s sources of information.

    Overwhelmingly, also, I think the use of traditional texts is a matter of how one chooses to dispose one’s energy. I see enormous amounts of energy being devoted by Stephen and other Buddhists to defending one view of the texts rather than another. This is the ‘scholarly quagmire’ that I have often commented on in the past: once a scholarly interpretation becomes invested with value, it easily becomes an end in itself. This also becomes a source of division and unnecessary conflict, and I ended up rather regretting my own recent attempt to engage in that territory by promoting Christopher Beckwith’s work, because it tended to produce polarised discussions.

    At the same time the people who invest their energies in scholarly debates about texts are often failing to investigate and interpret newer material that is of much more practical relevance. Such material is now proliferating. Stephen seems to be a case in point. He indirectly mentions provisionality in the interview, for example, but does not tell us anything more about what he thinks it means, how it relates to psychology, or what practical issues we may encounter in trying to put it into action. He supports the avoidance of metaphysics, but I’ve yet to hear his account of exactly what he thinks metaphysics is and how we go about avoiding it. I hope these things will be in his book, but somehow I doubt that they will be given anything like the space they deserve.

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