Review of Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist Part I

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Experimental Review of Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist by Stephen Batchelor

“The historical Jesus is not the Jesus of history.” --John Meier


“The historical Buddha is not the Buddha of history.”



The Beams and Struts website is dedicated to “an inquiry into the post-postmodern age.” The text of Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist is an intriguing combination of multiple intertwined genres: historical investigation of the Buddha, travelogue/pilgrimage, autobiography, and theological and philosophical criticism. I won’t follow the normal outline of a book review but rather excerpt out ideas, quotations, and sections from the book that I believe correspond to the worldviews of modernism, post-modernism, and post-postmodernism. This form of writing is an experiment on my part, spurred on in part by the more mosaic-like writing of Confessions of An Atheist Buddhist itself. I make no claim that these items I list are exhaustive of any such worldview in relation to the book.

I will not therefore be giving a major overview of the work. A short version is that the book is a combination of Stephen Batchelor’s life first as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and later leaving his monastic life, marrying and becoming a lay Buddhist. He articulates his own views towards a version of Buddhism more in line with secular Western existence. Batchelor develops these views through a search for the Historical Buddha, taking him on a personal journey to various locations in India important in the life of Siddhattha Gotama (aka The Buddha). The narrative switches back and forth between Batchelor’s past, his present travels, and the Buddha’s life.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in this topic. It makes a number of very interesting points (some of which I had wished the author would follow up in more detail upon) and raises some very important questions. Its greatest strength I felt was its ability to take a reflective position relative to Buddhism, being willing at times to be critical (even very critical) of its own tradition that is rare in my experience of reading much contemporary Buddhist writing. For those interested in more of a detailed overview, the video posted above is of Batchelor talking about the book.

On to the review….

Modern worldview:

Confession of an Atheist Buddhist is written from the perspective of a committed layperson who seeks to lead a life that embodies Buddhist values within the context of secularism and modernity.” p. xi

--The book contains a strong criticism of religious doctrines/dogma and authoritarian structures of Buddhism (particularly Tibetan Buddhism but also Zen and Theravadin Buddhism). It criticizes mythic and magical worldviews from the perspective of a rational worldview.

--Repeated emphasis on the compatibility of Buddhism with modern European existentialist philosophy (e.g. Jean Paul Sartre).

--The Quest for the Historical Buddha. This trajectory parallels the Christian Quest for the Historical Jesus, itself a purely modern construct. As Batchelor notes (pp. ix and x), there is no real interest classically in the historical Buddha. This tendency shows the influence of liberal humanism and its general assumption that by throwing off tradition and getting back to the original sources we will be “liberated” (“liberal” from liberate: to free). This tradition has its roots in Schleiermacher’s 19th century romantic-inspired hermeneutics.

--The book highlights the Buddha’s criticism of the caste institution and his progressive inclusion of women in his movement (again just like Jesus of Nazareth).

--The strong note of individualism in the work.

--The tone of a “Confessional” autobiography. Though St. Augustine (5th century C.E.) invented this genre of writing, it reaches its greatest influence (also via its cousin the biography) during the modern era of Western development, with its heavy emphasis on the subjective individual self.

--The author’s personal adherence to the modernist values of science, critical inquiry, deliberation and democracy, and individual freedom.

--Repeated praise for prototypically modernist Christian theologians like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann. In fact, much of this book can be said to be an exercise in Buddhist de-mythologization (or as Tillich would say, “de-literalization” of dogmatic mythic belief systems). cf p. 58

Postmodern Currents:

“Following the example of William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, I have relinquished the idea that a ‘true’ belief is one that corresponds to something that exists ‘out there’ in or beyond reality somewhere. For pragmatist philosophers such as these, a belief is valued as true because it is useful, because it works, because it brings tangible benefits to human beings and other creatures. p. 199 ”

--The invocation of Richard Rorty here is very important as Rorty is perhaps the greatest Anglo-American (as opposed to Continental European) philosopher of postmodernity. Rorty’s work is post-metaphysical and pluralistic in nature.

--The author’s refined understanding—refined both through study and personal experience living in places like The Tibetan exile community in India, a Korean Zen monastery, and among Buddhists in the West—that Buddhism adapted to the cultural worldviews, languages, and styles of the locales to which it migrated.   In philosophical history this practice is called genealogy, the historical and cultural (as opposed to theological/dogmatic) way of studying belief systems and worldviews. Batchelor realizes (pluralistically, postmodern-ly) that there is no such thing as a monolithic Buddhism. There are Buddhisms. These various forms of Buddhism arise in specific locales, cultures, and eras and how they appear depends on their many interactions and contingent formation. None can be declared the final, authoritative version of Buddhism for all times and places.

--The realization that contemporary people live in sometimes non-overlapping worldviews (e.g. see pp. 203-204) and that these worldviews are built primarily through language. Individuals see the world a certain (world-view) way and some insights are simply impossible within the frame of certain worldviews. Attempting to convince someone from a different worldview of a confusing, non-existent (in their world) truth or piece of data (from one’s own worldview) solely through “reasoning” does not work. The form of logic or reasoning one deploys is itself dependent on one’s worldview—hence the difficulty in communicating and debating across worldviews. As Martin Heidegger would say, it is not that we humans have language but that language has us.

“Since 1995 I have been producing collages made from discarded materials—paper, cloth, plastic—that I find dropped on the street, blown into hedgerows, tossed into wastebaskets and dumpsters…I write books in this way too. Each book is a collage. Jackdaw-like I pick and choose ideas, phrases, images, and vignettes that for some reason appeal to me. I am likely to find them in a fragment of overheard conversation as in a Buddhist scripture.” pp. 226-227

This quotation points to another postmodern element of the book—what is technically termed in the literature bricolage. Quite literally in Batchelor’s case (collage/bri-colage). After the deconstruction of any one cultural worldview as ultimately normative, after one has experienced the realized world of multi-culturalism (and multiple cultures), there is in a sense no going back. After that deconstruction of one ultimate story/worldview, various worldviews, experiences, and insights can be joined together in a mish-mash fashion (a collage, a mosaic).

Nevertheless a certain kind of coherence/consistency can be developed for the postmodern self.   To wit:

“Then I need to assemble all these little bits and pieces into tidily organized chapters. And I have to sustain the illusion of a self-assured narrator who has known from the outset what he wants to say and how is going to say it.” p. 227

Paul Ricoeur, the great postmodern philosopher argued that narrative (the telling of a story) creates the sense of a self in the postmodern world. This narratival postmodern self is neither the whole and serene inner self of modern philosophy (Descartes’ cogito, Kant’s subjective self, etc.) nor is this narratival self is however simply the result of systems (linguistic, social, economic, historical) beyond its control. It’s created but not arbitrary.

(Proto) Post-Postmodern Currents

What is it in Gotama Buddha’s teaching that was distinctively his own?....

1. The principle of this-conditionality, conditioned arising.

2. The process of the Four Noble Truths

3. The practice of mindful awareness

4. The power of self-reliance   (Batchelor, p. 237)

These four axioms provide a sufficient ground for the kind of ethically committed, practically realized, and intellectually coherent way of life Gotama anticipated. They are the matrix that frames his vision of a new kind of culture, society, and civitas.” pp. 237-238 (italics in original).

I disagree with the use of the word “self-reliance” as I think it can too easily be confused with rugged American individualism in the Emersonian tradition. What Batchelor is referring to (as I understand it) is the notion of Self-power in a religious tradition (as opposed to an Other-Powered view). Regardless, the ability to synthesize a tradition into its core elements without diluting the tradition is a key trait I believe of post-postmodern religious faith and practice. I think Batchelor has done that here.

--Moreover, Batchelor correctly notes that this simplified (but not simplistic) base will look to create another form of human civilization and culture as well as new individual actions and perspectives. These are the four quadrants at the heart of integral theory. In postmodernism we learn that our cultures are constructed, notions of truth are constructed, events and ideas are contingent, historical, and open to multiple interpretations. In post-postmodernism we accept this basic understanding and then ask “How shall we create the deepest future? How can we become response-able to the world we desire?” Batchelor’s book, from a Buddhist stream, is an interesting foray into that territory. I would have liked for him to expand on this point of a new culture or civilization. It’s the most intriguing proposal in the book (I thought) and I felt like it was simply made and then not developed. Absent such an “objective” vision of truth the book tends to fall back into a neo-pragmatist secular vision of “what works for you is good for you, what works for me is good for me, we all just need to learn to tolerate/accept each other’s differences” kinda thing.

--Batchelor’s narrative concerning the historical Buddha’s life can be seen as a form of second naivete (the term belong to Ricoeur). Second naivete—a form of beginning post-postmodern faith—is the ability to re-enter a story as true, in this case a religious story, as totally true, but with an “as if” quality. In first naivete (aka fundamentalism) one believes a religious story as totally true without question. This corresponds to magical and mythic forms of faith development. Then one develops into a critical phase of approaching religion (especially one’s own) and searches for individual truth (what the religious scholar James Fowler called individuative-reflective faith). Ricoeur calls this phase of development the time of “suspicion.” It generally parallels the modern and postmodern eras of Western thought. At some point Ricoeur argues one may come to be “suspicious of suspicion” and then grow into a post-critical (or second) naivete.

One of the core strengths (I believe) of Batchelor’s work is that it spans a number of developmental levels (modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern) which allows readers from those various worldviews to pick up on what makes sense them in their own place as well open a new window to a more nuanced understanding of Buddhism.

To be fair, however, this reading of the text is my own and I’m not sure would be accepted by the author himself. The following quotation points to what for me is a (if not the) major weakness of an otherwise very strong work:

“I also have to be alert to the tendency to project onto Gotama all my own preferences and values. I recognize that every Buddhist through history has constructed his or her own Siddhattha Gotama and I am no different. I have to acknowledge that the vast majority of Buddhists have shown little if any interest in the personality of the man who founded their religion; they have been content to revere a remote and idealized figure. I realize that everything I discover about this distant historical person will also reveal something about myself. I cannot claim that my version of the Buddha is somehow more true or correct than yours. All I can say is that the materials buried in the Pali Canon and elsewhere have not yet exhausted their capacity to generate more stories about Gotama and what he taught.“ p.110 (my italics)

I’m totally with Batchelor until that sentence that I italicized. Here Batchelor I think falls from a pluralistic view (i.e. a correct understanding of multiple historical interpretations of the Buddha) to relativism (none is better than another).   On the difference between pluralism and relativism see here. The relativism view (“I can not claim that my version of the Buddha is more true or correct than yours”) is for me a kind of cop out.

Batchelor makes the very important point that one’s historical reconstruction of the past is never separate from one’s contemporary experience and world. This insight was articulated in its deepest form by the great postmodern philosopher Georg Gadamer. From within the realm of postmodernism it may well be true that no view can be claimed to be more true or correct than another. This potential flaw does not stop postmodern thinkers from actually making such claims. For example, Batchelor’s personal views are those of a pragmatist—namely whatever is thought to be of more practical positive effect is valued more highly over that which does not bring such practical benefit. Which begs the obvious question: who decides what is A)practical and B)beneficial and how do they decide this?

In other words, I think though Batchelor says formally that he cannot claim his version of the Buddha is more true or less than someone else’s in practice I think he does (in fact has to and should make such claims).

The tradition of the Quest for the Historical Jesus I think can help shed some light on this issue, some light that I think would aid Batchelor’s work in attempting to reconstruct the life of the historical Siddhattha Gotama.   In historical Jesus studies, there is the notion (quoted at the beginning of this piece) that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of history. The historical Jesus is a scholarly reconstruction using the tools of modern research. The Jesus of history is the man who actually lived 2000 years ago in Palestine. Just so, the historical Siddhattha is not the Siddhattha of history. This is not to say that there is no overlap between the historical Jesus/Siddhattha and the Jesus or Siddhattha of history. Hopefully there is some overlap, but the Jesus or Siddhattha of history is far more than our historical reconstructions of them. Similarly, the Jesus of History is not the same as the Christ of Faith. The Christ of faith is a religious confession made only by certain people (i.e. Christians). One can accept the historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth—his life, what he taught, what people claimed about him—without believing or practicing these teachings. Just so, one can (and should be able to) accept the historical reconstruction of Siddhattha Gotama without necessarily having to proclaim or believe him to be The Buddha. [Sidenote: I will be exploring this topic in greater detail in my upcoming essay.]

Batchelor at times (like in the quotation above) seems to realize that the historical Siddhattha is not the Siddhattha of history. But at other times he seems to blur the lines. Also one can I believe say with more or less (if not 100%) certainty which historical reconstructions of Siddhattha (or Jesus) are more correct and which are less so. Which is more true or not is certainly contextual—such a version of the Buddha’s life and teaching is not true for all times and places to be sure—but some contexts are I believe deeper than others.


The next review will discuss more fully some of the spiritual and religious interpretative schemes (especially in regard to spiritual practice and experience in Buddhism and other religions).



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