After Buddhism

Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

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Stephen Batchelor
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     2017.
     400 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300224344.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As a scholar in the study of religion, the title of this book—After Buddhism—alarmed me at first sight. After Buddhism? but still there is “dharma”? and even for a “secular age”? Indeed, Stephen Batchelor has a hand for catchy titles: Buddhism without Beliefs (Riverhead Books, 1997), Living with the Devil (Penguin Books, 2005), and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (Random House, 2010) may not have been less shocking for Buddhist readers. However, the first pages of Batchelor’s recent publication reveal that the title of the book is not to be eaten as hot as it is cooked. The titular phrase “after Buddhism” refers to “the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies” (28). And “secular” is simply kept as “this age” or “this generation,” meaning that a secular approach to Buddhism is not concerned with the future enlightenment of individual beings but with the present “social and environmental experience of being alive on this planet” (16). Batchelor does not engage in recent debates on secularism in academic discourses but rather draws on German theologians Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Scholars in the study of religion may set their concerns about Buddhism and secularism safely aside and just follow the author in his attempt to recover the Buddhist dharma before Buddhism.

The names of Tillich and Bonhoeffer as well as Don Cupitt, to whom Batchelor dedicated this volume, are no coincidence. Leaning on Christian philosophical tradition, Batchelor’s aim is to produce a systematic theology for Buddhism (4). In fact, his approach is very Protestant insofar as he follows at least two major paradigms of German Reformation, sola scriptura and solus Christus, which he applies to the Pāli Canon and Gautama Buddha. Batchelor is interested “in recovering a sense of the Buddha’s social world as a sense of his person” and in reconstructing “a multifaceted and nuanced portrait of the man” (28). Of course, Batchelor is aware of the problem with looking beyond Buddhist orthodoxy based on the first scriptures, which were precisely the result of a process of homogenization within the Buddhist communityHe tries to circumvent this obstacle by focusing on voices that have been previously unheard in Buddhist commentaries and research and might therefore provide a broader picture of the lifestyle and societal behavior of Gautama’s contemporaries. The reading of the stories of these five mendicants alternate with the discussion of five Buddhist-ethical paradigms, which are compiled into eleven chapters. 

It is not possible to recount Batchelor’s many arguments unfolded in the chapters on “After Buddhism,” “A Fourfold Task,” “Letting Go of Truth,” “Experience,” “The Everyday Sublime,” and “A Culture of Awakening.” His main interest lies in transition from the sutra The Noble Quest, in which Gautama describes his awakening for the first time as a radical shift in perspective, and its development into the fourfold task in the sutras The Four Tasks and On Not-self. In the remaining six chapters, Batchelor undertakes a study of how the conceptsof causality and nirvana became a practice and thereby the basis of a Buddhist ethic. Batchelor argues against the metaphysical turn in Buddhist ethics. In his understanding, by “adopting a language of truth, Buddhists moved from an engaged agency with the world to the theorizing stance of a detached subject contemplating epistemic objects” (115). Instead, Batchelor develops a Buddhist ethics that is led by practical reasoning (58), by the social virtue of care (102-105), and by authenticity (150). The latter gains weight through Batchelor’s readings of the stories of the five mendicants.

In the chapters on“Mahānāma: The Convert,” “Pasenadi: The King,” “Sunakkhatta: The Traitor,” “Jīvaka: The Doctor,” and “Ānanda: The Attendant,” Batchelor presents five men whose lives illustrate that the Buddha had assembled a “community of imperfect people who struggled to apply the dharma in their very different lives” (319). Batchelor spends time extracting from the Pāli Canon what we can know about the social organization, geographical details, and the religious landscape of the time. This systematic reading is meticulous but sometimes exaggerated. The author aims to present to us historical but nonetheless worldly figures, complex flesh-and-blood individuals, “very much like our own conflicted selves” (46). These stories show that the dharma was accessible for everyone irrespective of whether that person was a mendicant or an adherent, male or female. Ultimately, these stories allow Batchelor to present Gautama’s community as a kind of “proto-secular sangha” or a “diverse community of self-reliant individuals who mutually support one another, yet without compromising their independence in terms of their understanding and practice of the dharma” (315).

Batchelor’s After Buddhism is a heady read. One has to be familiar with classical Buddhist as well as Western philosophical terms. To follow his approach, the reader must accept the Western master narrative after the Age of Enlightenment, whereby we live in a “post-credal age” (28) and wherein only an adequate ethical, philosophical, and contemplative practice “optimizes human flourishing” (28). To prove that the dharma can provide the means for this human development, Batchelor skillfully collects passages of the Pāli Canon. Even though his arguments on single passages are convincing, the suspicion remains that the selected sutras only fulfill the purpose of proving his thesis. Furthermore, from the perspective of a young female scholar in the study of religion, Batchelor’s focus on scriptures and the written transmission of Buddhism appears as a disappointing recourse to protestant Buddhism and early Buddhist studies research. Is it really possible that such a profound connoisseur of Buddhism cannot accept the diversity and everyday reality of global Buddhism? Reading this book in Kathmandu while looking at the Great Stupa of Boudha, it seems to be a negation of everything that the dharma also is: materiality, sensuality, sound, and vision. To exclude these realities means to exclude the “small life-worlds” (Benita Luckmann) of everyday Buddhists who may not be part of a well-educated, intellectual circle of dharma practitioners. 

As an advocate of secular Buddhism, Batchelor understands himself as someone who seeks “to return to the roots of the tradition and rethink and rearticulate the dharma anew” (19). But if he were interested in the very beginnings of the dharma, why didn’t he turn to the “apocryphal” writings of early Buddhism such as the Therīgāthā, or the “Verses of the Elder Nuns”? Women’s studies have come a long way to prove that all too often the small life-worlds of people were not and still are not to be found in texts written by male clerical elites. In looking at the Therīgāthā, Batchelor could have remained inside his own comfort zone of the PāliCanon while also illuminating the Buddha’s social world and proving its importance for a dharma for a secular age.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dolores Zoé Bertschinger is Academic Assistant in the Study of Religion and History of Religion at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Batchelor is an internationally renowed author, teacher and scholar of Buddhism who leads secular Buddhist retreats worldwide, is a founding member of the Bodhi College, and a contributing editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He lives in southwest France.

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