Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Difficult Pill: New Article at Buddhist Geeks

Yesterday Buddhist Geeks published my article, "A Difficult Pill: The Problem with Stephen Batchelor and Buddhism's New Rationalists." Within minutes, the heated comments started flying. Here's a short excerpt from the article:

There is admittedly, in what Batchelor is doing, something noble and admirable. He is providing a valuable service to the Buddhist community by asking us to set aside centuries of enshrined orthodoxy and cultural bias and our own unquestioned assumptions and beliefs and wishful thinking, and to look at what we are doing on the Buddhist spiritual path with fresh, more practical eyes. To this end, his stance echoes the Buddha’s instruction in the Kalama Sutta (which Batchelor uses as a colophon in the first part of Buddhism without Beliefs): do not accept any idea or belief simply because it is commonly accepted or handed down in the tradition, or because it’s written in holy texts, or because someone you venerate stated it to be so. Instead, the Buddha advised followers to use their own prajna or discriminating wisdom to see what really makes sense and accords with reason and leads to happiness, and only then to accept it.

From a certain point of view, Batchelor’s teachings are a skillful means to address a particular psychographic segment of Buddhist practitioners: those grounded in Western, rationalist philosophy and empirical science, whose natural inclination is towards a materialist explanation of phenomena. Students belonging to this psychographic are riding high on the hog these days, with advances in neuroscience now providing a material basis for studying the effects of meditation and other “spiritual” practices in a laboratory setting. To such ears, Batchelor’s spirited war cry against the foul and outdated superstition of rebirth must come as a clarion call.

And yet….

There is also, in what Batchelor is doing, a seeming fixity of opinion that weakens his arguments. He seems bizarrely convinced that two-and-a-half millennia of realized Buddhist practitioners have been deceiving and distracting themselves with the red herring of rebirth, and that anyone who has recourse to logic and reason in these matters must draw the same skeptical conclusions as he does. In a scathing review of Batchelor’s work in Mandala magazine, B. Alan Wallace wrote: “Although Batchelor declared himself to be an agnostic, [his] proclamations about the true teachings of the Buddha and about the nature of the human mind, the universe, and ultimate reality all suggest that he has assumed for himself the role of a gnostic of the highest order. Rather than presenting Buddhism without beliefs, his version is saturated with his own beliefs, many of them based upon nothing more than his own imagination.”

Many of the comments posted in response to the article muddied the waters by mixing up the terms "reincarnation" and "rebirth," prompting me to post the following clarification:

I want to point out that I never used the word "reincarnation," which is getting thrown around a lot in these comments -- I used the word "rebirth" (which, by the way, Batchelor also predominantly uses). To my mind, they are philosophically distinct notions. Reincarnation, as I understand the term, has come to signify -- in many people's minds, anyway -- what Julian characterizes as the transmigration of a truly existing soul from one body to another -- a very un-Buddhist idea, indeed.

Rebirth, on the other hand (as I see it) encompasses a process of becoming and rebecoming that is far more subtle and difficult to understand or express in a conceptual way. It is interdependent with the essential Buddhist view of anatta or no-self (which is also subtle and difficult to understand) and teachings on the nature of mind (which, guess what, is also subtle and difficult to understand -- in fact, "it" can't be "understood" at all conceptually -- it can only be experienced).

If there is not a truly existing, separate, independent self to begin with, then how could it jump from one body to another? Yet the non-existence of a little homunculus who travels from body to body does not imply that no aspect of mind continues. For those who want to seriously study Buddhist views on rebirth, this is an important distinction to make, and it opens into a much deeper level of inquiry.

Another thing I find odd about Batchelor's objections to rebirth is that he characterizes it as "offering consoling assurances of a better afterlife" (Buddhism without Beliefs, page 114). To the contrary, it seems to me that if you truly grasp the meaning of interdependence, karma, and no-self, then the prospect of rebirth (as I have characterized it above) offers very little in the way of ego-consolation indeed. The aspect of mind that continues might be very subtle and impersonal, and have little or nothing to do with what we ordinarily think of, in our deluded ways, as the "self." So, whoever might be reborn, it wouldn't be "me" -- it would, in every practical sense, be someone else. Frankly, I don't see much consolation for my ego in that.

Check out the whole article and the intense discussion in the comments it prompted.

1 comment:

wayfarer said...

the thought does occur to me that Bachelor-san has yet to realize zen.