Thursday, 11 March 2010

The new Buddhist atheism (and the old agnosticism)

The Guardian's Mark Vernon has a brief review yesterday of Stephen Batchelor's latest book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist."

Vernon notes that the "anti-religion" Christopher Hitchens comes out endorsing this new work, which seems a bit strange after writing in 2007 "of Buddhists as discarding their minds as well as their sandals." Perhaps he's taken the time to look a little more deeply into Buddhism (take note Bill Maher, Brit Hume, etc).

Batchelor, he describes as the "vanguard of attempts to forge an authentically western Buddhism." Having read and enjoyed "Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening" as well as "Living with the Devil" I happily agree with this claim.

Vernon goes on: "For myself, as an agnostic, I was saddened that Batchelor has now definitively opted for atheism: the closure on the transcendent that decision represents felt like a partial turning away from his previous open efforts to discern the nature of things."

Which of course got me thinking, is Buddhism (in the West?) or should it be (anywhere) atheistic or agnostic? A third option, one espoused by one of our fellow Buddho-Bloggers, Adam, is Apatheism. I tend to think that Adam's view most closely hits the mark of the early Buddhist suttas. The Buddha just didn't much care about God (Brahma), Gods (Devas), etc. He taught about them at times, such as how to reach the "Realms of Brahma" by practicing loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. He even equated this "Realm of Brahma" -if attained by these practices- with "release of the mind" (cetto-vimutti). While traditionally this is felt to be a step shy of awakening (bodhi / nibbana), at least one great contemporary scholar thinks they (tradition) got him (the Buddha) wrong: perfect loving-kindness etc is awakening (see "How Buddhism Began" for details).

But the Buddha also made fun of the Gods, including Brahma, suggesting that he was merely deluded in thinking of himself as the "creator" of all other beings (because he was the first to appear in his realm), and that he didn't have the answers that the Buddha did regarding the ends of the world (universe). But Gods do also play a supporting roll in Buddhism throughout its history. It was a Brahma, Sahampati, that asked the Buddha to teach his Dharma, even though it was so profound that few would understand it. And the Buddha is said to have risen to Tusita heaven to teach his -then deceased- mother.

As one of, I assume, many in the West that came to Buddhism after a period of Atheism (and agnosticism, and anti-theism), I can appreciate the article's discussion of Humanists (oh yea, I was one of those too) flocking to see and read Batchelor's works. As a college student studying Buddhism, one of the most important lessons I received was that Buddhism is more a system of orthopraxis than it is of orthodoxy. What this means is that it is your practice that counts, not your beliefs. To me this suggests that Buddhism is 'big' enough to embrace theists (especially those of a mystical leaning), atheists, agnostics, apatheists, and others without contradiction. So our quarrels about correct understanding of God in relation to the path may be quite mistaken to begin with.


  1. Great article Justin - I agree with pretty much everything you said. I have a lot of respect for Stephen Batchelor and it was in part reading 'Buddhism Without Beliefs' that opened the way for me to start practicing Buddhism. He does seem rather preoccupied with ontology though - with the reality or otherwise of questions about rebirth, God and so on. And I don't think these questions are really relevant to Buddhist practice. On the other hand, no doubt his ongoing ponderings will continue to make Buddhism accessible for other thoughtful Westerners.

  2. I think you've nailed a pretty important point, Justin (Shonin). Ontology is a pretty big preoccupation of Westerners - we've all heard many who say they shy away from Christianity or Buddhism because of so-called supernatural beliefs like God or Rebirth. So perhaps a scholar like Batchelor is right to wrestle with *just these* issues as a skillful way to bring 'authentic' BuddhaDharma to the West.

  3. Great post Justin,

    I agree with Shonin "And I don't think these questions are really relevant to Buddhist practice." I think in the West we do like to label things, especially ourselves. And I also agree with you, " is your practice that counts, not your beliefs."

    Buddhism does not ask one to surrender ones beliefs, as everyone comes to the practice with some preconceived ideas and notions based on opinions and speculation. I think that all that the Buddha asked of people new to the teachings is that they be as honest with themselves as they can be.

    I completely agree, Buddhism is big enough for everyone, no matter the label.

  4. Contrarian, me. [But, then, Buddhism does not ask one to surrender ones contrarianism -- I suppose.]

    Nah, nah, nah. I don't BELIEVE that!

    Y'all don't think that practice is there for the purpose of molding one's beliefs for the function of changing one's orientation to the world (samsara)?

    Practice is mechanical and goalless. It's not a bad thing, but that is only so because it gets one somewhere in a 'getting nowhere' kind of way.

    Buddhists have "problems" with death and life's meaning that need sorting out, just like everyone else [ie, those with goofy (aka, non-Buddhist) beliefs]. Terror Management Theory applies to Buddhist as much as it does Christers.

  5. I'm readings "Confession" right now so I'm fascinated read it. Being a Zennist I tend to think that in the end the gods, etc. aren't that important.

  6. Tom

    "Y'all don't think that practice is there for the purpose of molding one's beliefs for the function of changing one's orientation to the world (samsara)?"

    Moulding no, but that is not to say that one's cherished beliefs won't be seriously challenged by practice. I dare say many kinds of Buddhism 'mould' (ie condition) new belief - and no doubt some beliefs encourage practice, but this is not what I think of as 'pure' or 'true' Buddhism, which is practice/personal experience led. For example, even within Zen there are beliefs, value judgements etc, but these are at best 'skillful means' in my eyes that can lead to a 'purer' sort of wisdom.

  7. Very, very good, Shonin. I will cogitate on what you've written.

  8. I am reading "Confession" right now. Batchelor says that the Gotama of the Pali Canon is "atheist" in the most literal sense: he does not state a belief in a god or gods. Batchelor points to several dialogues between the Buddha and Brahmin or other religious Indians, where he points out the contradictions in their stated belief systems. I think the title of the book is meant to draw attention, and I would bet Batchelor would have personally preferred a less provocative one. I don't think he is suggesting people throw away their belief systems, but he does advocate putting every belief to the test.

  9. Buddhism is pretty easily compatible with the existence of polytheistic deities like the Greeks' - they show up in the suttas, after all. It has a much harder time with a monotheistic God - one of the reasons Buddhists spent a lot of time attacking Advaita Vedānta despite its apparent similarities to Buddhism. Everything, in early Buddhism, is impermanent, inessential and suffering; in Mahāyāna everything is supposed to be empty. But any monotheistic God worthy of the name is supposed to be none of these things.

  10. Atheism is often understood of as a belief in no god, a view held by one who believes (and can argue :-) there is no god. Lately, a more literal meaning, "without god", has been gaining traction. I suspect it's in this sense that Batchelor has changed his self characterization from the agnostic described in Buddhism Without Beliefs to the atheist in the title of his latest book.

    God bless him, he's a saint in my eyes.

  11. I am a Buddhist and I embrace theism.

  12. Interesting that some people don't seem to see that "theism" is contrary to Buddha Dharma because theism usually means belief in a creator God as a separate supernatural being. If your theism just means recognizing the Devas who live in the wealthy neighborhoods then that isn't incompatible with Buddhism, but it really doesn't deserve the "ism" part of theism.
    I like the term that Soyen Shaku used in the early 1900's: "panentheism" to describe the Buddhist view of the "all and one" nature of the immanently transcendent that is one's own true nature.
    The mystery is in the koan: Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Who is the other?

  13. Hia Alan - thanks for joining in with your thoughts. I love the Koan and I didn't know Soyen Shaku is the originator of that term, so thank you for that.

    In general, and given the letter of the early Buddhist teachings, I agree with you that Buddhists cannot be 'theistic'. But, allowing for a broader 'spirit' of the Buddha's teaching, even later Buddhists in Asia have taken on very theistic-looking views. And given that Buddhism tends more toward ortho-praxis (right actions) as opposed to orthodoxy (right opinions), I think we all can find room for belief in God so long as it does not impede upon the development of wisdom and compassion.

    That said, I'm in the camp that finds 'theism' rather incomprehensible :)

  14. I agree that Buddhism is practice, but it is practice done for 'the right reason' -- thus right worldview is necessary.

    As for theism: incomprehensible, maybe. But there being life is incomprehensible. There being consciousness is incomprehensible. There being so much as a single molecule and the slightest movement is incomprehensible. Comprehension and incomprehension is both comprehensible and incomprehensible and it's not.

  15. And, while I'm stirred up into a fury: "The spirit of the Buddha's teaching" is a way of being you have to want to emulate or understand. It's not a way of becoming such that you can walk the streets of gold in Nirvana while [chuckle] the rest of those damn fools are left to roast in a Buddhist hell.

    The problem with the often brilliant and wonderful Mr. Batchelor is that he wants people to accept and take on his narrowed understanding of Buddhism, and its ground of opinion.

    Yeah. This opinion stuff isn't the making of red lines. Buddhism isn't like the Republican Party, determining "who's conservative enough." Areas that are clearly opinion should not/cannot become Buddhist dogma.

  16. Good points, Tom. The Buddha's conception of 'right view' was at once broad and definite. People, for instance, with no belief that moral actions have consequences were fairly well doomed. And that makes good sense. But in his teachings of the Brahma-viharas, he didn't refute the young Brahmins' beliefs in God (Brahma), but rather taught a new practice for getting near to him.

    For the reasons you mention, I don't spend much time thinking of the question of "Being" which has perplexed and continues to perplex many a philosopher. To my mind it's Becoming "all the way down" and with that we can focus on the here and now and shaping a better future.

  17. "As for theism: incomprehensible, maybe. But there being life is incomprehensible. There being consciousness is incomprehensible. There being so much as a single molecule and the slightest movement is incomprehensible. "

    Perhaps so, and I'm happy to remain open-mindedly agnostic about the ultimate nature of these things, but every moment we are tripping over 'life', 'consciousness' and 'matter'. Not so with 'God' which an ontological, metaphysical belief theists are expected to believe in based on speculation, or questionable logic.

  18. At least one incident of divine revealation survived the bowdlerization of thePali Cannon, it was if my memoury is still functioning about Vikkali, the Buddha was informed by two angels that Vikkali would soon die, so the Bhagavan sent this message to Vikkali in order for him to strive to attain enlightenment. This incident is the mousehole that lets in the lion, prayer and worship are both valid Buddhist practice.

  19. Also Buddha was often talked to by gods like Brahma who urged him to preach, and a multitude of devas who informed him his previous masters had passed away. Also Buddha mentioned the gods in his explanation of the cosmos and how to be born in a better life (for those who do not take the path of nirvana or aren't Karmically ready). Buddhism is far from atheistic its just not centered on the gods. The majority of Japanese Buddhism is Shingon and Tendai which are Vajrayanan and have many gods, demons and heavenly beings.
    Its not until the Zen and especially western Zen sects started to spread that they tried to make Buddhism atheistic in order to spread to certain "modern" thinkers.

  20. “It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.” – Buddha