With his latest book, After Buddhism, renowned scholar Stephen Batchelor continues to expand his vision for a “secular Buddhism”, a project he began nearly twenty years ago in his 1997 book Buddhism Without Beliefs. In that groundbreaking book, he sounded an urgent alarm about what he saw as the growing institutionalization of Buddhist thought and the consequences of such a rigid traditionalist approach. Now, in this new volume, he has put forth a less alarming, but still intensely urgent, call for Buddhists to “practice the dharma of the Buddha in the context of modernity.”
One might well expect that, in pursuing this modern context, Batchelor will be offering his readers updated versions of the traditional teachings, couched in more contemporary language. But no – surprisingly, he turns back instead to what he terms “the roots of the tradition”, seeking to uncover the original meanings of the Buddhist discourses. Such an approach, he contends, is needed because these discourses have in so many cases been obscured by twenty-five centuries’ worth of institutionalized dogma incorrectly imposed upon them by generations of teachers who have misunderstood the Buddha’s intentions, attaching a quality of metaphysical truth to the ethical teachings he offered.
Thus, the way forward to modernity is by way of going back to the past.
The most startling discovery to emerge from Batchelor’s examination of these roots of the tradition is his finding that the four “noble truths” (there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and there is a path that leads to the end of suffering) are more properly understood – and, more correctly translated from the original Pali texts – as the following integrated set of four “tasks”:
1. Suffering is to be comprehended.
2. The arising is to be let go of.
3. The ceasing is to be beheld.
4. The path is to be cultivated.
What arises in the second task, and what is beheld to have ceased in the third, is “reactivity” – the term Batchelor uses in place of the more traditional “clinging”, and by which he means the complete spectrum of reflexive behaviors we thoughtlessly pursue in our futile quest to prolong pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones, all because we have not truly comprehended suffering (the first task).
Batchelor’s recasting of the second and third “truths” into these twin tasks of letting go of reactivity and beholding its ceasing lead him to a conclusion that may well be the most controversial he has ever put forward – that the traditional formulation of the third noble truth (there is an end to suffering) is in fact untenable. “What Buddhists trumpet as the ‘end of suffering’ cannot mean what it says. Not only does it make little sense, the discourses themselves clearly state that it means the end of reactivity. To let go of reactivity and behold its ceasing is certainly no easy task, but at least it is something to which we can aspire, whereas the end of suffering will remain a pipe dream for as long as we are pulsating, breathing, ingesting, digesting, defecating bodies.”
This is a radical assertion indeed. And for me, it’s a most welcome one. Until now, I have seen no way to reconcile the claim of this “noble truth” that there is an end to suffering with the obvious truth that there has never yet been, nor does it seem likely that there ever will be, so much as a brief respite, no less an “end”, to all the unspeakable suffering that nature and mankind inflict on a daily basis to such a large portion of humanity.
Having spelled out his vision of the “fourfold task” as the foundation for a modern secular Buddhism early on in the book, Batchelor then proceeds in the ensuing chapters to write with his characteristic eloquence on a broad spectrum of topics essential to dharma practice, while never losing sight of the core assertion that underlies every paragraph of this thought-provoking book – his plea that we “think of the dharma as a task-based ethics rather than a truth-based metaphysics”.
Here is a small sampling of what he has to say: on the meaning of the Pali word ‘dukkha’, often translated as ‘suffering’ (“the tragic dimension of life, implicit in experience because the world is constantly shifting and changing”), on the point of dharma practice (“to pay attention to your experience, such that you become viscerally aware of its ephemeral, poignant, empty, and impersonal character”), on the concept of self (“a perspective on experience that remains constant while the feelings, perceptions, and inclinations that make up one’s experience arise and pass away”), on the Buddhist approach to ethical behavior (“in facing a moral dilemma, one does not ask ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but rather ‘What is the most wise and loving thing to do in this specific instance?’”), and on mindfulness (“an exploratory and potentially transformative relationship with the pulsing, sensitive, and conscious material of life itself”).
I did have one reservation with After Buddhism, having to do with the format Batchelor has adopted for its eleven chapters. The five even-numbered ones (chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are given over to biographical sketches of five different and relatively unknown individuals, all contemporaries of the Buddha, each of whose stories demonstrates a particular way in which an ordinary lay person in the Buddha’s time successfully designed his life to be in harmony with the dharma – historical examples of a “secular Buddhism”, if you will. Batchelor states that his intention for inserting these tales into the scheme of his book is to show the reader that dharma practice has always been rooted in the events of ordinary life, and was never intended by the Buddha for the exclusive practice of monks, scholars, and teachers.
While each of the five persons so profiled is of interest, and while Batchelor’s talents as a storyteller equal his skills as a dharma teacher, the overall effect these alternating chapters had on me was akin to the experience of an intermission between acts at the theater – a welcome pause to stand up and stretch, perhaps, but then after the fifteen minute pause, enough. Let’s have the lights dim once more and turn our attention back to the drama on the stage – which, in the case of reading this book, meant getting back to the subsequent odd-numbered chapter where the real drama of the narrative would unfailingly resume.
This is admittedly a minor complaint on my part, and one with which not every other reader may concur.
Batchelor concludes his book with an inspiring chapter entitled “A Culture of Awakening”, in which he paints a hopeful picture of how a secular Buddhism might invigorate modern culture by infusing it with “a sense of the sublimity and interconnectedness of life”. Secular Buddhists, he says, have the opportunity to respond to the myriad challenges facing the planet “unconditioned by the instincts of reactive egotistic greed” that characterizes so much of modern human behavior. How? By practicing the fourfold task, thereby recovering “what the dharma has always been about: embracing the suffering of the world, letting go of reactivity, and experiencing that still, clear center from which we respond to the world in ways no longer determined by self-interest alone”.
Batchelor’s look back to the roots of the dharma tradition, the surprising point of departure for After Buddhism, ends with a look forward, to what he hopes will come “after Buddhism” – a more awakened secular culture, one that brings to fruition the seeds that the Buddha planted with his teachings all those centuries ago.