Stephen Batchelor

Here’s a post from the IPS forum I did on Stephen Batchelor:

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.”

See much more in comments.


About theurj

Also known as theurj. I've contributed some essays to Integral World and co-founded Open Integral blog, now defunct. I continue to participate in Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, emptiness, nonduality, Stephen Batchelor. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Stephen Batchelor

  1. Edward Berge says:

    Also see Bill's post at Integral Options Cafe discussing Batchelor's latest book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.

    Bill says at the above link about the new book:

    “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've been claiming this for years now, that much of what I perceived in Mayahana (even Madhyamika, depending on the interpretation) was an expression of, or at least hybrid with, Hinduism. But my observations were not as a Buddhist scholar-practitioner, just as an informed and interesed lay person. It will be interesting to read one such communally-validated “Buddhist scholar-practitioner's” thesis on this claim.

    The following is from a recent interview with Batchelor at Tricycle:

    “I began to have serious doubts about certain elements of Buddhist orthodoxy: the belief in rebirth, different realms of existence, and so forth.

    “I think dogma has become a problem in Buddhism. Ideas and doctrines that have evolved over the centuries since the time of the Buddha have come to be superimposed upon the dharma as we find it presented in the earliest known sources— for example, the Pali canon—just as the myths of the Buddha’s life have been imposed upon the historical fragments of his life that one likewise finds scattered throughout the canon. What I’ve done is to try to strip away the myths about Siddhattha Gotama, to try to arrive at a more historically grounded portrait of the Buddha as a human being. I’ve also tried to remove some of the dogmas that have developed subsequent to the material we find in the Pali canon, which are now entrenched as Buddhist doctrine.”

    “What, then, did you conclude were distinctly Buddhist ideas?”

    “Four things stand out. One is the principle of dependent origination, or “conditioned arising,” as I call it; the second is the practice of mindful awareness—being focused upon the totality of what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience; the third is the process of the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Eightfold Path; and fourth, the principle of self-reliance—how the Buddha really wanted his students to become autonomous in their understanding of the dharma, and not to generate dependencies upon either the memory of him or upon some authority figure within the monastic community.”

  2. Edward Berge says:

    As a resource one can also check out our previous Gaia discussion based on Batchelor's essay “letting daylight into magic” (link to the latter in the discussion). Therein he not only investigates Tibetan Buddhism's belief in literal deities but also some of the subtleties of still remaining Hindu ideas in points of doctrine. This is reiterated in this Winnowed blog review of his new book, where the blogger says of it:

    “Dzogchen on the other hand is a contemplative practice found in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and is based on acquiring a ‘pristine awareness’ with help from an experienced Lama. The Geluk School doesn’t like Dzogchen on the ground that it is a remnant of the Zen doctrine and also that it is possibly a thinly veiled version of the Brahmanic belief in Atman.”

    I think the Gelug is moving away from this metaphysical holdover but it is not free from it either, as noted in the Gaia discussion.

    But then he gets into the differences between the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and how certain doctrines were refuted to give a false front of unification yet still exist in many sects.

    “One can understand why the Dalai Lamas would tolerate and even embrace Nyingma views in order to honor the historical heritage of Tibet, to affirm unity among the diverse communities of the Tibetan nation, even to be true to their own spiritual intuitions, But however justified such a position might be in personal or political terms, it should not obscure the real and potentially divisive philosophical and doctrinal differences that exist between the Nyingma and Gelugpa ideologies.

    “The Nyingma teaching of Dzogchen regards awareness (Tib., rig pa) as the innate self-cognizant foundation of both samsara and nirvana. Rig pa is the intrinsic, uncontrived nature of mind, which a Dzogchen master is capable of directly pointing out to his students. For the Nyingmapa, Dzogchen represents the very apogee of what the Buddha taught, whereas Tsongkhapa’s view of emptiness as just a negation of inherent existence, implying no transcendent reality, verges on nihilism

    “For the Gelugpas, Dzogchen succumbs to the opposite extreme: that of delusively clinging to something permanent and self-existent as the basis of reality. They see Dzogchen as a return to the Hindu ideas that Buddhists resisted in India, and a residue of the Ch’an (Zen) doctrine of Hva-shang Mahayana, proscribed at the time of the early kings. Moreover, some Kagyu and Nyingma teachers of the Rime (“impartial”) revival movement in eastern Tibet in the nineteenth century even began to promote a synthesis between the forbidden Jonangpa philosophy and the practice of Dzogchen.”

  3. Edward Berge says:

    And this last excerpt, for me, highlight that even the Gelug still cling to the metaphysical notion of “unconceptual awareness,” something L&J refute with second-generation cognitive science. (See “the embodied challenge” for example.)

    “For the followers of Shugden this is not an obscure metaphysical disagreement, but a life-and-death struggle for truth in which the destiny of all sentient beings is at stake. The bodhisattva vow, taken by every Tibetan Buddhist, is a commitment to lead all beings to the end of anguish and the realization of buddhahood. Following Tsongkhapa, the Gelugpas maintain that the only way to achieve this is to understand non-conceptually that nothing whatsoever inherently exists. Any residue, however subtle, of an attachment to inherent existence works against the bodhisattva’s aim and perpetuates the very anguish he or she seeks to dispel.”

    These points of doctrine are confirmed in a book-length treatment called The Two Truths Debate by Sonam Thakchoe (Wisdom, 2007), highlighted by the divergent teachings of Tsongkhapa and Gorampa. Also confirmed though is that while the Gelug through Tsongkhapa refutes the above Dzogchen adherence to “a thinly veiled version of Atman” nonetheless it still clings to nonconceptual awareness. It seems Batchelor is going historically back before Nagarjuna came on the scene to refute the Hindu tendencies in Hinayana with his two truths doctrine. But even the latter’s attempt carries the residue of the Hindu notion of two distinct realms and methodologies, albeit now mutually entailing and related (at least according to Tsonkhapa, not Gorampa).

  4. Edward Berge says:

    The above is why Wilber continually makes reference to Vajrayana and Vedanta, since the Vajrayana he speaks of is exactly the Gorampa variety that aligns wells with Vedanta. For example, this from excerpt G:

    “Both Vedanta and Vajrayana have a very simple but very powerful map of the relation of states of consciousness, levels of consciousness, and realms of bodies/energies. I believe this scheme is essentially correct, even when retrofitted in AQAL terms…. There are no other models even remotely like it in its explanatory capacities, and I have incorporated those aspects, virtually unchanged, in my own model of Integral Psychology.”

    The similar elements from both of these worldviews express in Wilber's formulation of the two truths and their nondual relationship. For example this from Integral Spirituality, Chapter 5, “Emptiness and view are not two”:

    “When one is in deep meditation or contemplation, touching even that which is formless and unmanifest—the purest emptiness of cessation—there are of course no conceptual forms arising. This pure “nonconceptual” mind—a causal state of formlessness—is an essential part of our liberation, realization, and enlightenment.

    “In the Theravada, or early Buddhism, this formless state of cessation (e.g., nirvikalpa, nirvana, nirodh), is taken to be an end in itself, a nirvana that is free from samsara or manifestation. Mahayana Buddhism went further and maintained that such a view is true but partial, and promptly dubbed Theravada Hinayana Buddhism (Small Vehicle Buddhism). Mahayana Buddhism maintained that while the realization of nirvana or emptiness is important, there is a deeper realization, where nirvana and samsara, or Emptiness and the entire world of Form, are one, or more technically, Emptiness and Form are “not two.” As the most famous sutra on this topic—The Heart Sutra—puts it: ‘That which is Emptiness is not other than Form, that which is Form is not other than Emptiness.’ This realization of Nonduality is the cornerstone of both Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) Buddhism.

    “When it comes to the nature of enlightenment or realization, this means that a complete, full, or nondual realization has two components, absolute (emptiness) and relative (form). The ‘nonconceptual mind’ gives us the former, and the ‘conceptual mind’ gives us the latter. Put it this way: when you come out of nonconceptual meditation, what conceptual forms will you embrace? If you are going to enter the manifest realm—if you are going to embrace not just nonconceptual nirvana but also conceptual samsara—then what conceptual forms will you use? By definition, a nondual realization demands both ‘no views’ in emptiness and ‘views’ in the world of form.”

    Yes, by Hindu Vedanta and Hindu-influenced Vajrayana the nondual is so “by definition.” But accepting the above metaphysical postulates “virtually unchanged” hardly makes for a postmetaphyiscal nonduality.

  5. Edward Berge says:

    You can see that Meyerhoff realizes the same thing, per this from Chapter 7 of his online book Bald Ambition at Integral World:

    “As is often the case with Wilber, the scholar he uses to derive and justify his interpretation is problematic. Wilber uses T.R.V. Murti's study The Central Philosophy of Buddhism as his authority on Nagarjuna. Murti's study was published in 1955 and belongs to what Andrew Tuck, in his study of Nagarjuna scholarship,[24] places in the second of four phases of western Nagarjuna scholarship. Wilber extols Murti's study as “generally regarded as the finest treatment of Nagarjuna in English.”[25] While he does acknowledge drawbacks and some disagreements with Murti's interpretation, he neglects to inform the reader of the large debate surrounding Nagarjuna interpretation. In Tuck's study we learn that the type of interpretation that Murti and those like him practiced has been criticized by recent poststructural interpreters. These recent interpreters point directly to an ambivalence and contradiction in Murti's Nagarjuna, centering on the very point that Wilber accepts uncritically from Murti. That point is the status of the Absolute in Nagarjuna and its relation to the relative or conventional world of everyday life.
    “Tuck explains that Murti was caught in a dilemma. He wanted to rescue Nagarjuna from the charge of nihilism that the scholarship previous to his had leveled at Nagarjuna's philosophy, but he also wanted to be true to the radically skeptical nature of Nagarjuna's argumentation. While Murti could claim that Nagarjuna asserts no view of his own, he had to argue, to counter charges of nihilism, that there was some sort of absolute in Nagarjuna's philosophy. Wilber follows Murti in asserting that there is an ineffable something which one realizes as the empty essence of reality, while trying his hardest not to turn it into a thing. Later Nagarjuna scholarship, however, influenced by contemporary analytic and continental philosophy, feels no compunction in dispensing with talk of an absolute because they have no fear that nihilism need result. But this scholarship, not averse to relativism like Wilber, can acknowledge Nagarjuna's relativism.”

  6. Edward Berge says:

    So what does Gorampa, a Sakya, have to do with Dzogchen? Mipham, a leading proponent of Nyingma and Dzogchen, is often on the side of Gorampa against Tsongkhapa on many issues (like the above) according to Thakchoe. Also note the following quote from Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty (Wisdom, 1999):

    “…the Sakya tradition would be the most likely source of philosophical precedent for the Beacon. It was Matthew Kapstein who first suggested that the Beacon’s critiques of Gelug Prasangika are for the most part the same as those used by Go rams pa in the TSB; my research has confirmed this beyone a doubt” (134).

    And since Murti and Garfield were mentioned, note how the debate between Gorampa and Tsongkhapa continues to this day. Thakchoe (cited below) argues that T offers a pluralistic paradigm for interpreting the two truths whereas G offers a monistic paradigm. This debate plays out in modern interpreters, with Jaideva Singh, Stcherbatsky and Murti on the monist side while Garfield, Hopkins and Newland are on the pluralist side.

    “How many truths? Are there two truths or one in the Tibetan Prasangika Madhyamaka?” Contemporary Buddhism, 5:2, 2004.

  7. Edward Berge says:

    We saw above how Wilber formulates emptiness as the absolute pole of a duality. Here are a few words by Batchelor on emptiness:

    “Emptiness is a confusing term. Although used as an abstract noun, it does not in any way denote an abstract thing or state. It is not something we 'realize' in a moment of mystical insight that 'breaks through' to a transcendent reality concealed behind yet mysteriously underpinning the empirical world. Nor do things 'arise' from emptiness and 'dissolve' back into it as though it were some kind of formless, cosmic stuff. These are just some of the ways emptiness has been appropriated as a metaphor of metaphysical and religious consolation.

    “Emptiness is a starkly unappetizing term used to undercut yearnings for such consolation. Yet ironically it has been called into the service of such longings. Shunyata (emptiness) is rendered into English as 'the Void' by translators who overlook the fact that the term is neither prefixed by a definite article ('the') nor exalted with a capital letter, both of which are absent in classical Asian languages. From here it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to equating emptiness with such metaphysical notions as 'the Absolute,' 'the Truth,' or even 'God.' The notion of emptiness falls prey to the very habit of mind it was intended to undermine.”

  8. Edward Berge says:

    I know Batchelor has been accused of being one of those relativist Boomeritis Buddhists. I offer the following from Batchelor.

    “The very fact of seeing Buddhism as a contingent, historical process might already be affecting the ways in which the dharma assumes form in the modern world. We may be learning to celebrate the diversity of traditions rather than to insist that each school be measured against the others on a hierarchical scale of authenticity. Instead of gauging the success of Buddhism in terms of the mounting size of its achievements (numbers of followers, sales of books, extent of properties, height of statues, etc.), we might come to see it in terms of individual fulfillment and empowerment, the emergence of small-scale, autonomous communities, and genuine commitment to a beginner’s mind. Far from endorsing an 'anything goes' pluralism, this historical and evolutionary perspective also recognizes how the survival of a tradition depends on its ability to meet and respond to criticism both from within and outside its own ranks. In an increasingly interconnected and transparent world, no form of Buddhism can afford to be an island.”

  9. Edward Berge says:

    To contrast further the nondual and emptiness between Wilber and Batchelor, here is more from Integral Spirituality:

    Chapter 2, The relation of the different lines to each other

    “This happens to fit nicely with the Madhyamaka-Yogachara Buddhist view of
    consciousness as emptiness or openness. Consciousness is not anything itself, just the degree of openness or emptiness, the clearing in which the phenomena of the various lines appear (but consciousness is not itself a phenomena—it is the space in which phenomena arise).”

    Chapter 3, Phenomenology, felt experience and states of consciousness

    “…according the great wisdom traditions, all men and women have available to them at least 5 great natural states of consciousness, all of which can be directly experienced:… causal-formless states, such as deep dreamless sleep and types of formless meditation and experiences of vast openness or emptiness;…ever-present Nondual awareness, which is not so much a state as the ever-present
    ground of all states (and can be ‘experienced’ as such).”

    Chapter 4, Zones #1 and #2

    “…grounded in a Freedom and an Emptiness that never changes, that is timeless and eternal, the great Ground and Openness of the entire evolving display, that nonetheless is Witness to its own display evolving.”

    Appendix II, The sliding scale of enlightenment

    “Enlightenment is a union of both Emptiness and Form, or a union of Freedom and Fullness. To realize infinite Emptiness is to be free from all finite things, free from all pain, all suffering, all limitation, all qualities—the via negativa that soars to a transcendental freedom from the known, a nirvikalpa
    samadhi beyond desire and death, beyond pain and time, longing and remorse, fear and hope, a
    timeless Dharmakaya of the Unborn, the great Ayin or Abyss that is free from all finite qualities whatsoever (including that one).”

    It is obvious that according to Wilber a turquoise altitude view of nonduality must agree with the above descriptions. Whereas to me it’s a “virtually unchanged” traditional, metaphysical and hence most definitely not turquoise or postformal view.

  10. Edward Berge says:

    Along the lines above on the differences that constitute the two truths, nonduality and emptiness see the essay I referenced recently here. In a discussion on this topic Jackson says:

    “The great Madhyamaka outlook associated with certain Tibetan proponents of other-emptiness…[assert that] buddhahood is empty only of those conventionalities, while its natural purity, luminosity, and gnosis are eternally established and independently existent; thus… [it] involves negating the self-existence of conventional entities and concepts, but not of the ultimate buddha-mind” (232).

    Granted some, including Balder, have argued that Dzogchen for example does not adhere to this other-emptiness doctrine. But Thakchoe (cited above) says of Gorampa on this topic:

    “Gorampa argues that ultimate truth is ontologically unconditioned, and hence it is not a dependently arisen phenomenon; it is distinct from empirical phenomenon in every sense of the word…it is an absolutely timeless and eternally unchanging phenomenon” (73).

    And Thakchoe reminds us that Mipham*, the eminent Nyingma-Dzogchen proponent, is in agreement with Gorampa on this (42). As are more contemporary modern monists like Murti, on whom Wilber draws heavily in interpreting Nagarjuna.

    * in footnote 170 Thakchoe says: “Mipham not only attempts to show that ultimate truth is the only truth but also takes one step further to show that ultimate truth is an absolute, therefore truly existent” (188).

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