Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the tag “Buddhism and atheism”

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution


Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom (Part 10 of A 13-Part Series)

I will not be discussing Mr. MacPherson’s posts concerning the other seven points of the eightfold path.  If after reading my previous nine posts anyone remains as yet unconvinced that there is nothing of the Buddha’s teaching in the Bible, then several volumes more—not to mention several posts—are unlikely to accomplish anything.  What I do plan to discuss is his post “God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23,” wherein he uses several suttas from the Digha Nikaya as a wedge to argue for Christian theism.  

The first sutta discussed (the Payasi Sutta, D.23) concerns a certain Prince Payasi who held “the following evil opinion: ‘There is no other world, there are no spontaneously born beings, there is no fruit or result of good or evil deeds.’”  Essentially, Prince Payasi was a materialist.  He believed that the body and the self are one and the same and hence there is nothing to survive the death of the body.  This being the case, whether one does evil or good is of no particular account, since one’s death is the end of responsibility.  (Note, of course, that modern-day humanists have a very different take on this issue.  The prince was no humanist.)  “No spontaneously born beings” means he denied the existence of immaterial intelligences (i.e. devas, gods, angels—pick your term) inhabiting a world (or worlds) other than what eyes of the flesh can see.  The sutta consists of an argument between the prince and Kumara-Kassapa, a disciple of the Buddha’s, in which K-K argued for the existence of other beings (devas) and some kind of continuity beyond death.  

Clearly this sutta opposes what most people would consider essential tenets of atheism and materialism, and Mr. MacPherson correctly interprets it this way.  It does not, however, support theism such as it is found in the Bible, since (1) the devas/gods/angels whose existence Kumara-Kassapa argues for are not eternal, (2) did not create the world, and (3) are typically subject to many deluded ideas concerning themselves and the world.  They bear more resemblance to the Olympian or Norse gods than to the Biblical/Koranic God.  Mr. MacPherson does not take note of these very important facts.  

The next sutta discussed is the Potthapada Sutta (D.9).  This is actually quite an involved discourse with a lot of good material, but the point Mr. MacPherson is interested in drawing from it is that a teaching, whatever it is, should rely upon experiential knowledge.  He looks specifically to verses 34ff to illustrate this.  And indeed, this is a correct interpretation of these passages and is totally in accordance with the empirical tone of the Buddha’s teaching.  The stock description of the Dhamma as “visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise, each for oneself” (M.38:25 et al), asserts just this.    

This point—i.e. the emphasis on empirical, direct knowing—is again highlighted in the Tevijja Sutta (D.13), where the Buddha chastises the Brahmin Vasettha for having faith in teachers and traditions who rely only upon what they’ve heard, what they’ve been told, what they’ve read, etc, and have not directly known anything for themselves and don’t even act in accordance with what they teach.  Vasettha understands and asks the Buddha to teach him the proper way to Brahma, so he may experience “heaven” for himself.  The Buddha teaches him how to cultivate the jhanas as well as the Brahmaviharas—meditations on sympathetic joy, loving kindness, equanimity and compassion.  So again, the necessity of direct knowing and seeing is made clear; as arguments for the necessity of personal experience as the source of any philosophy, these suttas are excellent choices.  

So far, so good. 

But then Mr. MacPherson’s argument drives off a cliff.  Having established the empirical orientation of the Dhamma, he then tries—vainly—to establish similar credentials for Christianity: 

Consider…what is written in the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 1, verse 14. God Himself, in the flesh, walked on Earth with people, and with Saint John even. He was called Jesus. People saw him. They spoke with him. They touched him. They ate with him.Saint Johnsaw him, spoke with him, touched him, ate with him, traveled with him, lived with him. “And the Word [God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” All four gospels actually testify of actual people who actually saw, heard, touched, ate with, and shared lodgings with God. In 1 John 1:1 the Apostle repeats his personal experience: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” 

When Christians speak of God, they speak from a lineage that knows. They speak from a lineage that did actually hear the voice from heaven. They speak from a lineage that satisfied the test that Buddha put to those ascetics and priests in Long Discourses 9 and 13 (“God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23”).

Now reread that first paragraph and look at the tense—every verb is in past tense.  In other words, Jesus, whether God or man or something in between (and as already pointed out in the previous post, whichever he was really doesn’t matter), was a one-time historical person—just like you, just like me, just like Mr. MacPherson.  And he’s gone.  He doesn’t have an address or social security number—he doesn’t even pay taxes.  As such, the “event” of Jesus is non-repeatable, and, outside the texts, non-verifiable.  However wonderful his sermons may have been, his alleged “godman” status is purely a matter of conjecture and ultimately faith.  Blind faith, I would like add. 

What Mr. MacPherson is doing is appealing to a body of texts created almost two millennia ago and assuming they are unquestionable in their historical veracity.  He’s making a faith-based claim that the generations of Christians since Jesus’ time form a “lineage that knows.”  But there is no way to be sure what Jesus’ disciples actually knew about him or whether their observations were accurately recorded.  (Few if any modern Biblical scholars actually think the Gospels as redacted come direct from the hands of the disciples whose names they bear.)   We are simply expected to accept this “lineage” and the texts it supports on faith—exactly as the Brahimns in the Tevijja Sutta did.  “Just as a file of blind men go on, clinging to each other, and the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, and the last one sees nothing—so it is with the talk of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas” (D13:15).  And so it is with the talk of these Christians learned in the Old and New Testaments. 

(I would like to point out a delicious irony here.  No educated Buddhist would ever take the suttas as verbatim transcripts of dialogues and happenings.  Quite obviously they are heavily edited, condensed versions of events, sometimes generic in nature, sometimes historically specific [though we can only speculate as to which is which]—and often political.  That’s right, many are propagandistic, and the Tevijja Sutta is a case in point.  It is unlikely any devout or learned Brahmins of the Buddha’s day would have acceded to all of his arguments as readily as is portrayed in this sutta.  For example, it was [and still is] widely believed that the Vedas are revealed texts [i.e. apauruseya, “not of human agency”], and so are in fact of divine origin.  Just as Christians assume as a matter of course that their texts descend in some sense from Deity, so too did the Brahmins.  I therefore find myself in the rather awkward position of urging a Christian to take the Buddhist suttas a little less literally.  The trouble, of course, for Mr. MacPherson is that a less literal reading of the text undermines his argument and leaves him in the same uncomfortable position as the Buddha’s interlocutors.)    

Notice, too, an essential difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Christian teachings about Jesus.  The Dhamma’s singular goal is to turn an uninstructed worldling (assutava putthujjana) into an arahant; that is, to make him into what the Buddha was.  The Dhamma says that if you do A, B, and C you can and will attain X, Y, and Z: 

Those ascetics and Brahmins who fully understand aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation…[i.e. the four noble truths]: these I consider to be ascetics among ascetics and Brahmins among Brahmins, and these venerable ones, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, in this very life, enter and dwell in the goal of asceticism and the goal of brahminhood (S.12.29). 

You are not expected to believe, but to do.  

This is not the case for Christian teachings concerning Jesus.  No disciple of his, either during his lifetime or now, could claim to share Jesus’ nature.  Jesus is considered a singular, unrepeatable phenomenon.  Nor is there any conceivable method by which we might determine whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, multiplied bread loaves, resurrected Lazarus or was an incarnation of Yahweh.  I might convince myself that such is the case, but my conviction as such holds no more weight than the conviction of those who believe that praying to Ganesha the elephant god helped them pass their final exams.  (Ganesha is the Hindu patron of arts and sciences, and god of the intellect and wisdom, so is well placed to accomplish such miracles.)  

There is yet a still deeper and more subtle problem with Christianity vis-à-vis the Buddha’s teaching.  I have heard some people lament “if only we had a videotape of what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion—then we would know.”  I one time made a similar remark to friend of mine, wondering whether or not that would actually resolve the issue.  His response was illuminating: 

Let’s say someone had a camcorder and followed Jesus around for his entire ministry, filming everything he said and did, and then filmed him dying, getting buried, and on the third day rising from the dead and ascending into heaven.  Now what? 

In other words, the resolution of this particular historical conundrum does not solve the problem of your suffering.  Even if Jesus somehow resolved the existential dilemma that every human being lives with, you must still resolve that dilemma within yourself.  Believing he was God or rose from the dead is not helpful.  It is irrelevant—a distraction, a delusion, an escape.  The false certainty of faith is no defense against the inevitable and real problem of dukkha—of birth, sorrow, pain, loss, aging, sickness and death.  The sooner you admit that you suffer and your life will end and that you have no idea what, if anything, happens after, the sooner you can get on with the business of finding out the truth.    

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor.  Riverhead Books 1998, 127 pages.

This is my second reading of this book.  I can’t remember exactly when I read it the first time; the early ohs, probably.  But given some of the comments I’d made in the margins, I expected to disagree–perhaps violently–with a lot of it.  I was pleasantly surprised.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I read was to try to figure out if the book was appropriate for beginners to Buddhism, or strictly for more experienced sorts.  Honestly, I’m still not sure about that, because exactly how to classify Batchelor’s little tome even seems problematic.  To be frank, I’m not sure you can say it is about Buddhism.  It talks a lot about the Buddha and his teachings, no doubt, but the impression I get is that it is more of a meditation on the implications of dharma and dharma-practice for modern men and women than something about Buddhism as Buddhism.  For example, you get very little of the traditional points of doctrine, or even meditation practice, though a few exercises are discussed.  These are all in the background, though, like pieces of furniture, and the reader is expected to find his or her own familiar seat among them and listen while Batchelor discusses whatever’s on his mind.  So, on this account I think it must be for advanced dharma folks…

But perhaps not.  Many people, those “with little dust in their eyes,” will be startled and stimulated by Batchelor’s eloquent, often insightful ponderings.  He points out that the Buddha’s way of awakening did not begin as a religion–is not really a religion at all–but started out as an expression of one amazing man’s experience of freedom, of his putting an end to suffering–or, as Batchelor rather oddly terms it, “anguish.”  (I must confess, this translation of the word dukkha jarred me from beginning to end.  It’s rather too extreme and not general enough.)  Batchelor goes on to say–and here is where the controversy starts–that the proper attitude, the one in keeping with the Buddha’s own, is agnosticism, a critical, even desperate sense of not knowing, of being open to insight.

At times he explicates this position brilliantly.  Consider this passage, for me one of the highlights of the book:

Such unknowing is not the end of the track: the point beyond which thinking can proceed no further.  This unknowing is the basis of deep agnosticism.  When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.  We are free to begin a radically other kind of questioning.

This questioning is present within unknowing itself.  As soon as awareness finds itself baffled and puzzled by rainfall, a chair, the breath, they present themselves as questions.  Habitual assumptions and descriptions suddenly fail and we hear our stammering voices cry out: “What is this?”  Or simply: “What?” or “Why?”  Or perhaps no words at all, just “?”

The sheer presence of things is startling.  They provoke awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock.  Not just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.  This can be unsettling…

The task of dharma practice is to sustain this perplexity within the context of calm, clear, and centered awareness… (pp. 97-8)

A few paragraphs below, Batchelor writes in paraphrase of Tsongkhapa: “Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves.”  Herein lies the heart of the book.

Immediately I was reminded of the author’s Korean Zen (Seon) roots and of the practice of the hwadu, better known by the Japanese term koan.  For me the passage hit home for in fact the first awakening experience I ever had resulted from just such a sense of deep questioning following upon a very stimulating conversation with a friend, and my life has never been the same since.

Alas, Batchelor overreaches and in places his agnosticism descends into Western materialist pontificating.  This occurs especially in the chapter entitled “Rebirth,” where he makes a number of groundless assertions.  For example, on page 34 he says “The Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth.”  The texts, however, make it clear that rebirth was a matter of experiential fact for the Buddha as well as many of his disciples.  (My own experience inclines me, rather strongly, to side with the textual accounts.  I intend to write considerably more on this at a later date.)  Batchelor goes on to say “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.”  But in fact the Buddha redifined the understanding of this process, from one involving a reincarnating soul (atman) to one of impersonal consciousness taking form dependent upon conditions.  Cf. the Mahatnhasankhaya Sutta (M.38) which begins “Now on that occasion a pernicious view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Sati… thus: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.'”  That “pernicious view” is none other than the ever popular reincarnation theory of Hinduism and Western New Age claptrap.  Batchelor then claims “The Buddha found the prevailing Indian view of rebirth sufficient as a basis for his ethical and liberating teaching” (p. 35).  But this is in direct contradiction to the quote from the Buddha on the opposite page: “But if there is no other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done or ill done, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility, affliction, and anxieity, and I shall live happily…”  Quite plainly, the Buddha’s ethics did not derive from a “belief” in reincarnation of any sort.  Rather, it was something that possessed independent merits and purpose.  Batchelor’s incoherence on this point undermines his otherwise excellent thesis that the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching is not dogmatic or ideological, but practical, empirical and investigative.

It is quite fine though if someone, Batchelor or even you, dear reader, wish to remain agnostic on the question of rebirth.  That is not an unreasonable position.  But where Batchelor’s materialist agenda really rears its ugly head is on page 37, where he claims karma (kamma in Pali) is some kind of “ancient Indian metaphysical theory.”  Batchelor says “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  But as he himself notes, the word karma literally means “action” and in the Buddha’s psychology specifically conscious action or, to put it redundantly, “intentional intention.”  The notion that intentions and conscious actions have repercussions, that they condition the psyche and predispose it to certain influences and outcomes, is hardly a “metaphysical theory” but rather a fact seen in direct reflexive observation.  A good course of vipassana meditation will make this apparent to any who harbor lingering doubts, for there the impersonal flow of cause and effect in the states and contents of consciousness become palpably, indeed painfully, clear.

Batchelor–good materialist that he is–adopts the notion that consciousness is entirely explicable in terms of brain function–itself an article of faith as yet unverified by any experiment or data.  While no one will argue against the notion that changing brain structure or chemistry can alter conscious experience, it is also a fact that by thinking consistently in a certain way, or by determining to do something repetitively–both of which are acts of conscioussness–I can alter my brain structure and chemistry, thereby clearly demonstrating that consciousness and the brain are interdependent; it is not a one way street where the one strictly determines the other.  Batchelor, however, is too ideological too consider this point.

I have not yet read this book’s successor volume, Confessions of A Buddhist Atheist, which even Christopher Hitchens found palatable.  From what I’ve read though, Batchelor there really presses his brand of agnosticism to the limits, perhaps to the point of utter failure.  I’ll leave my considerations on that one for a future review, if I ever get around to it.  For now I would simply like to say that despite the above noted flaws, Buddhism Without Beliefs is a beautifully written, deeply thought and felt little book worthy of the attention it has received.  Batchelor is a wise voice and an excellent writer to boot and though his book deserves criticism it also deserves praise.  My final conclusion is that while beginners in Buddhism can benefit from the book, it will probably mean much more to those who have sufficient reading and practice under their belts.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


Post Navigation