This post is Part Three in a series concerning Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (here is a link to a list of Batchelor’s publications at his website). Here are links to the first two parts:
1. Buddhism Without Ironic Detachment
2. “I discover as I grow older …”
And now, here are the Top 10 Reasons Stephen Batchelor is Completely Full of Shit:
1. Herman Hesse said all of this already (almost a century ago), and said it much better.
For those poor souls who simply cannot tolerate any exposure to actual Buddhism, because anything remotely “religious” causes you to go into the spiritual equivalent of anaphylactic shock, that is still no excuse for lowering yourself to Stephen Batchelor’s homeopathically diluted version of Buddhism. Nearly a century ago, Herman Hesse blessed the world with his own beautifully written iconoclasizingly idiosyncratic redaction of the Buddhadharma: Siddhartha. (At least four new English translations have appeared since 1998, indicating that many people are already taking this advice.) Hey, just because you can’t handle the real thing that doesn’t mean you can’t still have some standards!
2. Also, Hesse was honest about the fact that what he was saying was not really what the Buddha taught.
A few years after first publication of Siddhartha, the author wrote that, far from promoting Buddhism, the novel actually represented his own “liberation from Buddhism” (Gessamelte Briefe, Vol. 2 p. 96 of the 1979 Suhrkamp Verlag edition. This is cited in Adrian Hsia’s essay “Siddhartha”, which in turn is to found in A Companion to the Works of Herman Hesse, edited by Ingo Cornils.). Hesse was perfectly well aware of, and perfectly happy with, the fact that the words he was putting into his protagonist’s mouth, and the ideas he was putting into his mind, were not the teachings of the Buddha but rather an eclectic mixture of Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Taoism, Jungianism and Buddhism, and that this mixture was of his own invention. Batchelor, on the other hand, delusionally insists that the world accept Stephen Batchelor’s personal opinions as the original, pure and true teachings of the Buddha.
3. There is nothing “agnostic” about Batchelor’s New Dispensation.
T.H. Huxley, who first coined and defined the term “agnosticism”, touched briefly on the subject of Buddhism in his 1893 essay on Evolution and Ethics. What Darwin’s Bulldog had to say on the subject was described by Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids (who would later become and remain for 20 years as the president of the Pali Text Society) in her own 1912 publication “Buddhism: A Study of the Buddhist Norm“, as the “most remarkable contribution of any lay student to the philosophy of Buddhism.” My point in bringing up Huxley is twofold. First of all, Huxley’s own brief non-expert description of basic Buddhist teachings is far superior to anything Stephen Batchelor has ever written. Secondly, in the course of his presentation of Buddhist ideas, the Agnosticator in Chief demonstrates that the same “metaphysical tour de force” (Huxley’s words) by which the Buddha obliterated the notion of “Self” can be, and indeed must be (and indeed in Buddhist philosophy for the last 2.5 millennia has been consistently), also applied to the notion of “Matter”: “the ‘substance’ of matter is a metaphysical unknown quantity, of the existence of which there is no proof.” But what is a crude materialist like Batchelor to do without the Mammon of “physical reality” to grovel before? This is the real reason why Batchelor long ago abandoned any pretense of being an “agnostic”.
4. Why Settle For Goenka-Lite?
For several years, Stephen Batchelor lived as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and ostensibly was a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Then he changed teams and became a Zen Buddhist monk and lived in a Korean Buddhist monastery for several years while ostensibly studying Zen. In fact, however, during this whole time Batchelor was actually a practitioner, after a fashion, of “Goenka-style vipassana”. And in fact, what Batchelor “teaches” (and one can only refer to Batchelor as a “teacher” if one does so safely within the confines of ironic quotes) is nothing but his own personal interpretation of Goenka’s teaching. So, why accept some half-baked knock-off, when the real thing is readily available? An even more indelicate question is this: why has Stephen Batchelor never applied himself to a serious and systematic study of Goenka’s teachings, but has rather satisfied himself with only a minimal exposure to the teachings that he claims to hold in such high regard?
5. The Buddha actually did believe in and teach rebirth and karma.
“The slightest acquaintance with Buddhism, in virutally any of its forms, shows that … Buddhism teaches that when people (or other beings) die, they are reborn according to their moral deserts …. In fact, Buddhism probably has the strongest idea of personal continuity found anywhere. Christians, for example, believe in personal continuity through just one life that we live here on earth, and perhaps in a second life in a place or state of reward or punishment, a heaven 0r hell — although, since that is often considered to be ‘outside time’, it is not clear how the term ‘continuity’ can there apply. Buddhists, by contrast, believe in personal continuity over an infinite series of lives …. Though karma, ethical volition, is … only one of the elements of continuity in an individual’s life (and beyond), from the religious point of view it is the most important.” Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, pp. 11-13. Gombrich, it must be emphasized, is primarily concerned not only with the Pali Canon, but specifically with that part of the Pali Suttas that can most reliably be attributed directly to the historical Buddha.
6. Batchelor’s fundamentalism
Batchelor apparently could not be satisfied with presenting his own personal vision of what he thinks the Buddha should have taught (but did not) in an honest and straightforward way and for what it is. Nor was he interested in simply presenting his own personal interpretation of Buddha’s teachings as one valid way of looking at things. Rather, he insists, like any two-bit fundamentalist, that the vast majority of those who have called ourselves Buddhists for the last 2500 years have got it all wrong. And it just so happens that Stephen Batchelor, quite naturally, is just the guy to set us all straight. Like some Tudor-era Protestant “reformer”/psychopath, Batchelor sees evil forces lurking wherever priests, or pomp, or idols, or rituals of any kind are to be found. But it is not enough for Batchelor to simply choose, for himself, to have nothing to do with these things of which he disapproves. Because Batchelor has convinced himself that he possesses The One Truth, and The One Truth must prevail. The priests must be exposed as frauds, the pomp splattered with mud, the idols smashed, and the rituals mocked and ridiculed and ultimately broken up by the mob.
7. What do you mean “we”, Kemosabe?
There is simply no getting around the ugly ethnocentric core at the heart of Batchelor’s New Dispensation. Batchelor’s mind works in a such a way that his own failures at Buddhist praxis must not merely be the fault of Buddhism, but the problem with Buddhism must be explained in racial and cultural terms. It is not that Batchelor was incapable of sincerely embracing and practicing Buddhism, you see. The inadequacy does not lie personally with Batchelor. No, that wouldn’t do at all. Rather it is a congenital malady afflicting all white people: “I’ve found that this denial of one’s roots, this denial of one’s cultural upbringing, is not actually possible to sustain. If one seeks to sustain it, one often ends up as a kind of mock Tibetan or pseudo-Japanese. Although I have tried to do that on occasion, dressing up in all of the appropriate regalia, more than that I feel it to be still seeking to find an identity outside that of my own culture. It’s, as Freud might say, impossible to repress these things. They simply come out in other ways.” [Deep Agnosticism, 1997]
8. There is nothing new, or interesting, or admirable, in the sad tale of an aging hippie manufacturing justifications for why he no longer feels quite so rebellious, adventurous and culturally flexible as he did in his youth.
I’m just sayin’.
9. Arrested Development.
I read Siddhartha when I was 17. It is important to read Hesse when one is still young. Along with Carlos Castaneda. If one did not manage to read these things when one was 17, then there is perhaps no harm in allowing such an indulgence at a later stage in life. But this kind of reading material must be understood for what it is: a starting point, a point of initial departure. Batchelor appeals to westerners who are still spiritual infants, a state ideally experienced in one’s late teens. Sadly, though, Batchelor’s audience is not primarily made up of teenagers, but rather of those who are, like Batchelor himself, trapped in a perpetually infantilizing and narcissizing state of arrested development. But once we have had our fill of pabulum (regardless at what age this finally happens) it is soon time to move on to solid food. Like actual Buddhism and actual Shamanism.
10. Batchelor, by his own admission, has never made a serious attempt to study and practice actual Buddhism.
According to his own account, Batchelor did not apply himself to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism during his years as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Rather, he chose to devote himself to the practice of his own personal conception of “Goenka-style vipassana”. And during his years as a Zen Buddhist monk, Batchelor cultivated an attitude of “ironic distance” from his teacher, and only put Kusan Sunim’s teachings into practice “in a way that corresponded with my own interests and needs.” [for sourcing see: Buddhism Without Ironic Detachment] And at no time during his years of supposedly studying and practicing “Goenka-style vipassana” has Batchelor ever made a serious effort to systematically learn Goenka’s teaching as it is actually taught by Goenka.