Monday, April 29, 2013


Batchelor puts too much Western religion in his Tibetan Buddhism


This is a fairly important book, more literary than theological, and this characteristic can be seen from the very first pages. Stephen Batchelor constructs his demonstrations with an enormous amount of quotations and quoted authors, something like fifty. These quotations, what’s more, come from all kinds of traditions. The various Buddhist traditions are justified, though they bare not differentiated and thus are treated as all equivalent, the canonical books of course, the Tibetan tradition, the Chinese and Zen tradition and a little bit of the Korean and Japanese traditions.

What’s more surprising is the vast corpus of authors from the Christian and western field. We can note quotations from Milton, Blake and most of the English romantic poets. But he heavily uses Baudelaire and some French authors like Roland Barthes, Blaise Pascal, Michel de Montaigne and Emmanuel Levinas. And then he quotes the Bible, both Testaments, quite often and constructs a parallel between Buddha and Jesus, between Job and Buddha. He vaguely speaks of the Zoroastrians of Zarathustra as a source of Vedic literature clearly implied as being behind the Buddha’s principles, but he does not push the Zoroastrian thought to the west as one essential source of the three Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the last one being mentioned only marginally.

Quoting is not proving. This patchwork of quotations from various horizons does not make the Buddhist vision explicit. Stephen Batchelor does not develop an anthropological argument about the universality of some Buddhist concepts. But that is a side remark that we have to keep in the margin of the critique.

The first idea is that the Buddhist vision is entirely based on the dichotomy of good and evil, Buddha and Mara. This Mara, identified as the Buddhist Satan or Devil, is omnipresent and is stated as being Buddha’s “shadow” and that leads Stephen Batchelor to a second couple when he identifies Brahma as the Buddha’s “charisma.”  This is clearly specified as being metaphors and it is based on a first one (p. 15): “Hell is a metaphor of desolation.” This metaphorical field is constantly mentioned and developed. He identifies five devils: “the devil of psychological existence; the devil of compulsions; the devil of death; the devil who is born of a god; . . . the devil of conditioning.” We can note the fourth one is not of the same nature as the others, but that is not my point here. By multiplying the devils you end up weakening your reference. I am not sure the concept of “hell” has anything to do with Theravada Buddhism, even if we can find traces of this concept in the Tibetan tradition, especially the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).

When he states that “Satan is in perpetual rebellion against God; Mara is in ceaseless struggle with Buddha,” the parallel between Satan and Mara is weakened by the over use of it and Buddha is identified to God, making him into a god, or making god into a human being. Both ideas are unacceptable from any point of view. He finally gives his definition of the devil as being “the devil is the contradictionness of our nature.” Hence the devil is not anything at all, it is only a word to cover the duality of our nature, the fact that our nature is divided between good and evil, eros and thanatos and many other couples of that sort that have been used in the 20th century. He could have referred to many of the same couples the Buddha uses in the canonical books, like The Dhammapada, without bringing up this very folkloric personification of evil in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. He probably has it right, at the end of the book, when he says that the Buddha had to yield to his surrounding culture, and his surrounding Hindu environment made a heavy use of negative deities. But today this reference has become totally passé if not a sign of bigotry. The Buddha today would consider the real conditions of the modern world and would speak the language of that modern world, and the devil; satan and other malevolent semi- or simili-godlike creatures are better positioned in Hollywoodian films or TV series.

In the same line it is regrettable that he systematically uses Christian or Jewish words like “salvation,” “soul,” “Judas-like Devadatta,” etc. Especially since today Judas has been vastly reevaluated. Quoting Paul is not exactly a reference either since Paul is the Devadatta of James, one of the brothers of Jesus, the Devadatta of the early not yet called Christian followers of Jesus after his death. Note the author at this moment refers to this Devadatta as having tried to kill the Buddha, and later the author ,states that the Buddha was poisoned. This is givent to emphasize the schismatic atmosphere around the Buddha at the end of his life.

What is more important is his vision of “paticcasamuppada,” the renowned “dependent origination” amplified by Stephen Batchelor’s reference to “impermanence” (“anicca”) and to “samsara” (the cycle birth-death-rebirth) heavily present in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He does not quote “dukkha” that refers to the same cycle in the Theravada tradition and is reduced to “suffering” in western translations or the Tibetan tradition again. This “contingency” as he renames “paticcasamuppada” is based on violence, internal as well as external and his vision of life is absolutely apocalyptic:

“To be thrown into existence is painful and shocking. I was forced from my mother’s uterus to emerge bloodied and screaming, gasping for air in an alien world. I had no choice in the matter. As I learned to organize the chaos of the senses into an intelligible world, negotiate the labyrinth of language and signs, get used to hearing and telling my own and others’ stories, I discovered that I would be expelled from the world’s stage as unceremoniously as I was thrust upon it. Rather than face the contingency of my existence, I flee it. This existential flight is the diabolic undercurrent of human life.”

This vision in the first person reduces life to absolutely nothing and the whole process is rejected as “unceremonious,” which is really the wrong word as if a baby expected some etiquette after his/her birth and not love, attention and nurturing. This vision is absolutely romantic and the best illustration of this romanticism can be found in Victor Hugo:

Victor Hugo: This century was two years old

“This century was two years old! Rome was replacing Sparta,
already Napoleon was piercing through Bonaparte,
and already in many places the emperor's forehead
was cracking the stiff mask of the First Consul.
Then in Besançon, an old Spanish town, 
thrown like a flying seed to the mercy of the air,
was born to Breton and Lorraine blood
a child with no color, sightless and voiceless; 
so weak that he was abandoned by all, like a chimera, 
except for his mother,
and his neck, bent like a frail reed
made them build his bier and his cradle at the same time.
This child whom life was erasing from its book,
and who had not even one more day to live,
it's me.” (
Translation: Sedulia Scott, (CC) December 21, 2009)

This vision is a caricature of Buddhism. It is entirely dedicated to “the terror of contingency and change” (p. 52), “samsara” seen as “a devil’s circle,” “a vicious circle,” “addictive,” “anesthetic against contingency,” expressing the “ natural inclination to stability and predictable patterns” and realizing an “innate sense of being and self” (p. 61). This is based on a misread interpretation of modern neuroscience. He does not capture the gist of this scientific development that states and demonstrates that the “mind,” a word and concept central to Buddhism that Stephen Batchelor does not quote, replacing it at times with “soul,” is nothing but a construct of the brain, particularly the neo-cortex, under the bombarding of impulses coming from the sensorial organs (six and not five not to mention the internal physiological sensors) produced under the impacts from the real world onto the body.

This vision will remain dominant till the end of the book. Though after this first section he is going to open his vision, but he will come back to this negative vision in the end as the basic fundamental substratum of humanity. Life will be evacuated from his vision. In the very last paragraph he says: “To wander along the gaps allows the freedom to ask anew the questions posed by being born and having to die.” (p. 184) No life in-between and questions posed by having to live after being born and before dying.

But it is time to try to see what he hides behind “to wander along the gaps allows the freedom . . .”

This freedom when confronted to Mara, the devil, satan and samsara, is to get on the path, the eightfold path that is not qualified by this number here. The path is made secular and is not Buddhist any more. The path is just a real path in the world that we can start getting onto when we decide to get out of humdrum cyclical and jail-like samsara. We get out and meet the world. Then the devil and Mara are going to try to block our path, us on the path. What is surprising is that Stephen Batchelor does not consider the fact that there is NO path, at least NO ready-made or already-trodden path and that we have to blaze the trail and totally open the path which will have to be ours and only ours. This path is the result of our desire to get out of the vicious circle habits put us in and the motivation we have to do so.

This motivation is a mental construct on the basis of the fact that the human species is and has always been a migrating species. Some may not want to change, move, travel, wander, or whatever, but these are no longer human, and I believe that any human being somewhere, even in the slightest, smallest and most secret part of their brain, has a desire to discover and/or change and the motivation to do so, even if it is only in kicking a ball in the backyard or playing poker with some friends. NO ONE has been reduced to that vegetable state in which they would have no desire and no motivation to discover something new, to do something different. That makes him miss the point of the Buddha who explains his wandering is from home to homelessness. First “homelessness” contains a negation and these negations in Pali are always negative AND positive. The point is that the Buddha was a real human being because he was not reduced to what he was doing or where he was living but he was a wanderer who had no permanent home and could move from here to there and live in a succession of homes, which did not mean he forgot the old homes. To remember does not mean to go back, and to forget means to lose one’s roots, hence to become alienated since we would not know where we are coming from, we would be rootless.

And yet Stephen Batchelor has it right when he says the path is “a task,” “a gift” and “a bond” because our human perspective requires we get on the path of life and move, that’s the “task;” it always means that we are offered this opportunity to widen our experience and vision, that’s the “gift;” and it always brings us to new encounters and people, that’s the “bond.”  That’s what we have carried in our genes since Homo Sapiens appeared in Africa and was selected by his environment to survive till today. Our genes carry the unique injunction in our unique animal species that we are not only surviving (as for number just as many individuals as the environment can nurture) but also developing and that means using our neo-cortex, and developing it too by using it, and thus multiplying along with our expanding resources, then migrating and populating the whole planet, some day the universe, etc. The mind, that construct of the brain Stephen Batchelor never mentions, is the result and the tool used by Homo Sapiens to develop their mental-spiritual-ethical, then social-cultural-economic and lastly biological-neurological-physical dimensions both in each individual and in the species.

The Buddhists would never have existed, and along with them the whole humanity, if Homo Sapiens had not been able to do this. That brought pre-ice-age cultures and civilizations, and then post-ice-age Neolithic development: agriculture, cattle raising, towns, kingdoms of any type and political organization, religious systems of various kinds, sciences and technologies  Homo Sapiens was not a tribe of “large-brained, tool-making, language-speaking and itinerant creatures” (p. 89). Nothing of that was given to Homo Sapiens free and ready for use. Mutations and selection managed to retain this animal that was fit for long-distance running and no longer fit for tree climbing. The mutations necessary for that, and selected by the situation in which Homo Sapiens, were effective because they provided him with the possibility to hunt in the savannah, run away from most dangers, migrate long distance, hunt all kinds of animals with new weapons, fish in the rivers, etc. All that pivoted around the hand that was no longer very good for climbing in trees, the foot that was getting adapted to the upright stance and the running activity of this animal and the articulatory and respiratory systems that enabled it to develop human articulated languages and hence communication that amplified the hunting tactics and other survival and development strategies.

In that line, Stephen Batchelor’s remark about the fact that all religions that have survived in the global world of today started after the ice-age and all mention a path to follow and many other common elements deserves a lot of attention. Strangely enough he could have considered older mythologies that survived from before the ice-age and developed after the ice-age and he would have found out that many elements were common with the religious systems he was considering. What made these human societies, some of them with no connections at all among them before the fifteenth century, evolve the same ideas, similar concepts and comparable rituals, including human sacrifice and later the sublimation of this practice (present in the Bible for one example). Why is the concept of path so important in all civilizations? Why are the paintings in Lascaux mapped on the stars in the sky at the time when they were painted? Buddhism is one of these mental productions about 2,500 years ago, based on other mental systems that can be traced up to 2 or 3,000 years BCE. What was so common to all human societies even in distant continents for them to map their thinking on the stars, the cardinal directions, the wind, the mountains, the path of migrations, travels, journeys, or whatever else?

But what can Buddhism bring us today. Stephen Batchelor is both bringing suggestions and blocking some others.

His main contribution is this idea of the path that leads individuals to other individuals and societies, that leads to people meeting people and establishing contact and exchanges. He should have entered the concept of “dependent origination” because what he suggests can be found in this twelve – or ten – steps process: “contingency” for the whole process, “consciousness” as the third step and “empathy” from the sixth step onward. We have already mentioned the first one. The second is essential because it means the consciousness of the real situation in which we are, individually and collectively, at the levels of our immediate community, and then of all higher communities: nations, continents, the whole world. When we understand, are conscious of this real situation in which we are, we can start stepping back and reflecting on our experience, our desires, our motivations, our alienations, our trapped dependence. Then we can consider other people and then we can start building the essential ethical dimension Buddhism is speaking of: “openness,” to be open to other people and to welcome them in our mind and try to be welcomed by them in their minds. We are speaking of the trinity of “empathy-compassion-love” (p. 131). At the same time we are supposed to remain detached, but that does not mean cold. Stephen Batchelor does not discuss this point and does not quote “tanha,” this malevolent dimension of our minds that makes us stick to what we know, what makes us “happy”, satisfied in some simple and simple-minded dimension like thirst, hunger and other physiological needs that can become addictions.

He speaks of the three possible attitudes of a human being confronted to another human being he/she does not know.

First he/she can just lock him/herself up totally and ossify his/her personality. There is no communication, only casual meaningless or superficial exchanges.

Second he/she can be entirely taken by fear and he/she can run away, flee.

Third he/she can enter a relation of “empathetic interconnectivity” (p. 137) that has to lead to empathy of course, but then encounter and exchange, and finally some level of mental, spiritual or emotional intimacy. This level and only this level leads to important consequences.

1- To cultivate your awakening through meditation and just opening your mind to all kinds of new knowledge and experience, to free yourself from all kinds of limits just to be able to share all these new elements with these new people you have just met.

2- To avoid the danger of permanent closed communities of any type. We have to be on the move all the time and the modern world enables that with an intensity that has no antecedents. All these movements are supposed to enable exchanges on the basis of empathy. These exchanges today can be real in towns, in collective means of transportation, at the workplace and in all public spaces and places. And we have to still consider the telephone that is getting smarter and smarter. On the other hand these exchanges are developing very fast virtually with social networks, and all types of means and places on the virtual planet of the Internet enable all kinds of exchanges. And we are only at the beginning of this development.

3- Stephen Batchelor’s approach implies the rejection of any type of ossified or unchanging social organization or systems:: there is no exception here: all social hierarchies founded on segregation but also all institution, private or public, from schools to churches, from marriage to mosques, from family life to sports, from shopping habits to cultural events. Buddhism can be the best ideology to help millions of people follow the changing living conditions in our world. They can because their very first principle is that we have to consider the real concrete and spiritual conditions in which we are living in order to liberate ourselves and people around is from all kinds of shackles that may prevent us from reaching our real potential or potentials.

4- Buddhism is extremely well adapted to our modern democratic societies provided we do not ossify our thinking in any kind of dualistic rigid system like good and evil, or God and Satan, or Buddha and Mara, or secularism and religion, and so many other binary mental prison. The liberation is always on a third path and each situation has at least one third way, middle way as the Buddha used to call it.

I will not follow Batchelor who falls in the trap by reducing man to a Buddhanature and a Maranature and adding that the two are inseparable.  He even qualifies them further as being respectively responsive and reactive (p. 181). He does quote the concept of “appanada” and verse 21 of the Dhammapada but he misses the point because his translation does not capture the real meaning. And I would like to conclude with this verse and try to show how much more than the couple responsive-reactive it contains.

5- Keep in mind that the meeting of two people have these five levels of encounter and exchange on each side, and the more definitely the richer.

Let’s now consider the first line of the four line verse 21: “The careful do not die” as translated by Stephen Batchelor.

What he translates as “the careful” is in fact “care” (or it could be those who are careful), that is “appamado” but in fact you have here a negative term with the negative prefix “a(p)-“ and the term “–pamado” which is negative in meaning, hence “uncare” or “carelessness” or “those who are careless,” which brings the meaning of the full word to “non-uncare” meaning then “care” if two negations are equal to one affirmation. But this negation of negative notions is common in the Dhammapada. The negative notions describe the real world, the way it is without any Buddhist restraint or control, and a Buddhist has to negate these negative characteristics or attitudes to “become,” to be on the way to “”bhava” or “becoming,” the tenth step on the path of “paticcasamuppada,” the “dependent origination” we have already mentioned this fact leads, when it is completed, to the opening in your experience where you may start blazing the track of meditation to “nibbana” or “awakening,” which will make you a Buddha, an “awakened one.” In the same way what he translates “do not die” is in fact “amatapadam” compose of the privative prefix “a-“ attached to the past participle “mata” meaning “dead” which makes “amata” meaning “non-dead,” and finally the noun “pâdam” which is the nominative or accusative of the neuter noun “pada,” meaning “foot” and by metaphorical extension “way” or “path.” This first line means : “the non-careless [takes] the path to/of/for the non-dead.”

And one more remark is necessary for you to understand. The “non-dead” are those who have reached “nibbana”, who have stepped out of the “samsara” cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth and have merged into the energy of the cosmos, and hence are beyond death since they will not be reborn again. At this point we can see the meaning is really religious and Stephen Batchelor has made it secular by playing on the ambiguities of words and by neglecting the two negative prefixes applied to two words that are negative in meaning. The rest of the verse is similar to this first line.

I am quite sure we can have a secular reading of the Dhammapada, but this particular verse is not secular at all but contains a declaration that is in a way a real provocation to the Hindu religion as well as in contradiction with the Tibetan Buddhist school that believes that even the best Lamas are reincarnated like for example the Dalai Lama.

All in all an interesting book that opens some doors and requires a lot more research in basic Buddhist texts and practices and the clear distinction between Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, a distinction Stephen Batchelor never makes or specifically mentions in this book.


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