Secular Buddhism

Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World

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Stephen Batchelor
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World is a continuation of the line of constructive and critical thinking about the Buddhist tradition he began with Alone with Others (Grove Press, 1983)  and that includes The Faith to Doubt (Parallax Press, 1990), Buddhism without Beliefs (Riverhead, 1997), Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), and After Buddhism (Yale University Press, 2015). The book contains an introduction and five sections, each with several chapters. The first section, “In Search of Ñāṇavīra,” explores the spiritual journey of the English-born Theravāda Buddhist monk Ñāṇavīra Thera (1920–1965, b. Harold Edward Musson) that began with his encounter with the fascist mystic Julius Evola’s The Doctrine of Awakening (1943) and concluded with his suicide in the jungles of Sri Lanka while still robed at the age of forty-five. The second section, “Buddhism 2.0,” includes a single essay—“A Secular Buddhism”—a version of which appeared six years prior under the same title in the Journal of Global Buddhism. The third section, “Thinking Out Loud,” presents in its chapters a series of meditations on issues for Buddhists living in a secularized world such as the doctrines of karma and rebirth, the place of the monastic saṇgha, the legacy of the European Enlightenment in and for the present, and the virtues and vices of agnosticism. The fourth section, “Conversations,” contains three brief interviews: one that Batchelor conducts with the Christian theologian Don Cupit, and two in which Batchelor is interviewed by the meditation teacher Jeff Hardin and editor of Insight Journal Chris Talbott respectively. The fifth section, “Art and Imagination” first considers the unforeseeable murder of Petra Kelly at the hands of her partner Gert Bastian, then moves to discuss the place of imaginative thinking in the development of the Buddhist tradition as well as the place of aesthetics in understanding concepts such as mindfulness and emptiness.

The whole of the book is written in a spirit of searching. It offers more opportunities for reflection than it does prescriptions, and engages with a variety of figures in Western philosophy such as Augustine, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Martin Heidegger as well as Buddhist philosophers such as Nāgārjuna, Śāntideva, Dōgen Zenji, and Tsongkhapa. Though it can be rather philosophical at times, stylistically speaking Batchelor’s book is quite accessible. I found myself rather engaged with the personal anecdotes peppered throughout the book, which range from his translation of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra from Tibetan to English (4-10) to his chance encounters with pieces of weather-beaten refuse and vibrantly-colored paper envelopes (233-36) that serve as springboards for his thinking. Arguably, at the core of Batchelor’s book is a distinction he makes between Buddhism as a religion and Buddhism as a pragmatic path. The former he refers to as “Buddhism 1.0,” and it is characterized by dogmatic belief in the metaphysical claims present in ancient Indian cosmology, that is, karma and rebirth (80). The latter, “Buddhism 2.0,” is based on secular values, which Batchelor understands in a threefold sense: (1) as without reference to the religious or the supernatural; (2) as the values of this saeculumor “century”; and, (3) as characterized by the dwindling influence of religious institutions over aspects of everyday life and the assumption of that influence by various apparatuses of the modern state (77-78).

Batchelor relates that he was prompted to construct such a secular Buddhism through his encounter with participants in his courses on mindfulness meditation who had been introduced to the practice through the British National Health Service (NHS) in order to relieve, in one example, pain induced by severe burns, and decided to continue practicing it in more overtly Buddhist spaces. The fact that even when secularized, mindfulness meditation had positive outcomes for those who practiced it challenged Batchelor to consider whether or not the traditional—which is to say cosmological and metaphysical—trappings of the practice were necessary at all. Of course, Batchelor believes they are not—he would not have much of a book otherwise! 

While I think there is much of value in Batchelor’s book for practitioners and scholars alike, the distinction he makes between Buddhism as a religion and Buddhism as a pragmatic path appears to be based on a definition of “religion” that is presented throughout the book without any critical examination or reflection. Batchelor assumes that “religion” is characterized by dogmatic belief in metaphysical truths and that the realization of such truths, in the case of Buddhism, is the goal of all religious practice. This narrow way of defining “religion” for Batchelor is advantageous insofar as it allows him to retrieve what he takes to be the more “original,” pragmatic message of the Buddha’s teachings which itself was covered over by centuries of “religious” accretions (85). This of course is not new in modern interpretations of Buddhism. Even the French philologist Eugène Burnouf (1801–1852), today considered the founder of the field of Buddhist studies, believed similar things of the Buddha’s teachings, claiming them to be ethical rather than metaphysical in character and that the Buddhist tradition had over time made a “religion” of them, with the Buddha as its more-than-human founder.

That being said, Batchelor does display an awareness that claims regarding the original teachings of the Buddha—whether they are presented by adherents to Buddhism 1.0 or by himself for his Buddhism 2.0 à venir—are today met with due skepticism and as such are rhetorically impotent (80-81). Moreover, Batchelor is aware of his own temptation to be taken in by his own message and interpretation, to lose sight of the fact that it is nonethelessone interpretation among others (81). This is to say that he is more careful than his predecessors to have a more ironic relation to his claims. While I recommend this book for both practitioners looking for new ways to think about the Buddha’s teachings and their meaning for the present as well as for scholars who are interested in the ongoing transformation of Buddhism in its encounter with Western tradition, I caution readers to consider carefully as they go through the book Batchelor’s rhetorical strategy of parsing the “religious” and metaphysical from the “pragmatic” and ethical.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Calobrisi is a doctoral student in Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Batchelor is a teacher and scholar of Buddhism. He trained as a monk for ten years in traditional Buddhist communities and now presents a secular approach to Buddhist practice. The author of the bestselling Buddhism without Beliefs, he lives near Bordeaux, France.


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