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Thread: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

  1. #1
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    I read this book over the past few days, and it was certainly thought-provoking. In this book, Batchelor presents a brief memoir of his life with the dharma, and tells the story of the Buddha, as it is seen from the texts of the Pali canon. Batchelor went to Tibet in the early 70s, before many people did, became a monk, learned Tibetan, and studied in Dharamsala for several years. He then went to Switzerland to help run a center with Geshe Rabten. He left the Tibetan tradition, and went to Korea for several years, after which he gave up his robes, but continued exploring Buddhism, but mostly from the Theravada angle.

    Batchelor's books are all very interesting. He's a skeptic regarding many doctrinal issues, and this is one subject he examines in the book. It made me think a lot about whether or need we _need_ to believe in unprovable things to follow the dharma, but it also pointed out how rigid and dogmatic people in different Buddhist traditions can be. He remains, as he says, a "Buddhist atheist," teaching the dharma with no link to any specific tradition, but informed by the various flavors that he's studied.

    An interesting book to read for anyone who has similar questions.

  2. #2

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Hello Kirk,

    I read the book about a year ago and have to say that James Ford sums up my own thoughts rather nicely for the most part:

    http://monkeymindonline.blogspot.com/20 ... eview.html

    Sadly it seems Mr. Batchelor never truly practised Dzogchen or Mahamudra, which are slightly anti-intellectual and in many ways different from his very academic and intellectual Gelugpa approach.


    Gassho,

    Hans

  3. #3
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Quote Originally Posted by Hans
    Hello Kirk,

    I read the book about a year ago and have to say that James Ford sums up my own thoughts rather nicely for the most part:

    http://monkeymindonline.blogspot.com/20 ... eview.html

    Sadly it seems Mr. Batchelor never truly practised Dzogchen or Mahamudra, which are slightly anti-intellectual and in many ways different from his very academic and intellectual Gelugpa approach.
    I'm not sure that's entirely fair. He did, indeed, follow the Gelugpa approach at first, but then went in other directions. Because he hasn't practiced every flavor of Buddhist practice is not, in my opinion, worthy of criticism. He is, indeed, more intellectually oriented than others, this is clear. And James Ford's criticism about him not really experiencing Zen could be because it was in Korea, where Zen is slightly different from the Zen of Dogen.

    I think the merit of this book is more to raise a lot of questions about Buddhist practice and dogma, some of which I've been struggling with. It doesn't offer answers, and I think Batchelor is clear enough that he is not suggesting that his thoughts are not the only ones worth considering.

    Also, his narrative of the Buddha's life, removing all of the hagiography that makes him into a person able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, is refreshing. He points out, particularly, the Gotama's reactions to the polytheism of the time, saying that he wasn't anti-theist, but rather atheist (in the true sense of that word), which is an interesting point.

  4. #4

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Hello Kirk,

    I did not want to imply that one (or Mr. Batchelor for that matter) has to practise all and every buddhist path available. By writing "sadly" I just meant it would've been interesting to see how he would have reacted to practising in a Tibetan lineage that has a focus that is a bit less based on one's intellectual side. I remember him writing one line in his book about about Dzogchen or Mahamudra and how it was seen as heretical by his teachers and he never got to practise is (if I remember correctly). That's all.

    Gassho,

    Hans

  5. #5

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Quote Originally Posted by kirkmc
    Quote Originally Posted by Hans
    And James Ford's criticism about him not really experiencing Zen could be because it was in Korea, where Zen is slightly different from the Zen of Dogen.
    Ford said 'I have to admit I didn’t feel he gave Zen a real chance – a difficult assertion about someone who lived fully within a Zen monastic community for three years.' I don't think Ford was saying that it was because of the differences between Korean zen and Japanese Zen. And in my opinion they are not that different. This 'not knowing' Ford mentioned also resolves all the philosophical and 'dogma' issues. The mess of your everyday life - that's the real problem.

  6. #6

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    I found this book - the only one of Stephen Batchelor's I've read (though I've read transcripts of his interviews) - very refreshing, though I wonder how he managed to find the Tibetan tradition so dogmatic and authoritarian when someone like Matthieu Ricard finds it so liberating and has thrived in it.

    It was probably the iconoclasm of Stephen's approach that appealed to me. This may not be an admirable admission - iconoclasm can be rather juvenile, after all, though it clearly isn't in this case.

    Living in the midst of Thai Theravada, which is shot through with myth and magic, misogynism and materialism, it was refreshing to read a sympathetic critique of the standard Sunday School type of Buddhism encountered here even among well educated people. Still, I say this with some reservation; things are changing slowly, and one must acknowledge the pull of a tradition that has developed in villages and forests over hundreds of years. My wife, a critical Buddhist, can remember the excitement of the village festival at which people gathered at night to hear the Jataka stories recited by well known monks who could recite the stories as melodramas, playing all the roles themselves. One is loyal to a tradition that one loves, even if the simple beliefs have been set aside.

    The reference to Don Cupitt interested me. I have read Cupitt's books over a 20-year period and am a member of Sea of Faith, an eccentric collection of about 2000 people who are a mix of liberal Christians and atheists. Don's 2008 book, Above Us Only Sky, would appeal to Zen folk I think. He speaks of 'solar' religion, based on oneness and interdependence. The cover of this book features the Japanese character for Mu. Greg Spearrit, a Sea of Faith member wrote of Don Cupitt in 1995:

    It is more than a decade since English theologian Don Cupitt claimed to espouse a 'Christian Buddhism'. He has since made extensive use of and reference to Buddhist ideas in his work. A comparison between Buddhist thought (of the Madhyamaka and Zen schools) and the thinking of Cupitt demonstrates that in concepts, attitudes and methods there are many similarities and points of contact. Finally and fundamentally, however, there are differences, notably concerning solutions for the human predicament: where Buddhism plots to escape this insubstantial 'conventional' world, Cupitt accepts it as inescapable and recommends wholehearted involvement in it.

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    Senior Member Nindo's Avatar
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    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    I haven't read the book, but I found B. Allan Wallace's article interesting:

    http://www.mandalamagazine.org/archi...c-and-atheist/

    Warning: it's long - here are just a few points.

    Batchelor brings to his understanding of Buddhism a strong antipathy toward religion and religious institutions, and this bias pervades all his recent writings. Rather than simply rejecting elements of the Buddha’s teachings that strike him as religious – which would be perfectly legitimate – Batchelor takes the illegitimate step of denying that the Buddha ever taught anything that would be deemed religious by contemporary western standards, claiming, that “There is nothing particularly religious or spiritual about this path.” Rather, the Buddha’s teachings were a form of “existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism” that was “refracted through the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world.”4 Being an agnostic himself, Batchelor overrides the massive amount of textual evidence that the Buddha was anything but an agnostic, and recreates the Buddha in his own image, promoting exactly what Batchelor himself believes in, namely, a form of existential, therapeutic, and liberating agnosticism.

    Since Batchelor dismisses all talk of rebirth as a waste of time, he projects this view onto his image of the Buddha, declaring that he regarded “speculation about future and past lives to be just another distraction.” This claim flies in the face of the countless times the Buddha spoke of the immense importance of rebirth and karma, which lie at the core of his teachings as they are recorded in Pali suttas. Batchelor is one of many Zen teachers nowadays who regard future and past lives as a mere distraction. But in adopting this attitude, they go against the teachings of Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto school of Zen, who addressed the importance of the teachings on rebirth and karma in his principal anthology, Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma (Shobogenzo). In his book Deep Faith in Cause and Effect (Jinshin inga), he criticizes Zen masters who deny karma, and in Karma of the Three Times (Sanji go), he goes into more detail on this matter.5

    As to the source of Buddhist teachings on rebirth, Batchelor speculates, “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.” In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha counsels others not to accept beliefs simply because many people adhere to them, or because they accord with a tradition, rumor, scripture, or speculation. So Batchelor, in effect, accuses the Buddha of not following his own advice! In reality, the Buddha’s detailed accounts of rebirth and karma differed significantly from other Indian thinkers’ views on these subjects; and given the wide range of philosophical views during his era, there was no uniformly accepted “worldview of his time.”

    .... While there is ample evidence that the Buddha claimed to have direct knowledge of rebirth, there is no textual or historical evidence that he simply adopted some pre-existing view, which would have been antithetical to his entire approach of not accepting theories simply because they are commonly accepted. There would be nothing wrong if Batchelor simply rejected the authenticity of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the core of his teachings, but instead he rejects the most reliable accounts of the Buddha’s vision and replaces it with his own, while then projecting it on the Buddha that exists only in his imagination.

    .... While in his view Buddhism started out as agnostic, it “has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion (i.e., a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests).”9 Since there is no evidence that Buddhism was ever agnostic, any assertions about how it lost this status are nothing but groundless speculations, driven by the philosophical bias that he brings to Buddhism.

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    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    The above is certainly true. I don't know enough about this whole debate, and apparently there has been a very big debate about Batchelor's writings in the Buddhasphere. To be fair, Wallace is certainly not disinterested, given that he's engaged in the Tibetan tradition, and that article was for a Tibetan Buddhist magazine.

  9. #9

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Alan Wallace starts out all right, questioning the epistemological basis for Stephen Batchelor's critique and alternative view, but his own view appears to be faith-based, appealing to the scriptures and the authority of scholars like Buddhaghosa and to the insights of meditation practice (which, as a psychologist and scholar, he should know can't be put forward as any kind of "objective" evidence).

    To accuse Batchelor of retrojecting his own 20th/21st century view of things onto the Buddha may be a justifiable move. This does happen, and the same complaint has been directed against liberal Christians' presentations of Christology; however, it is not necessarily the case, and Batchelor would claim to have evidence for at least a reasonable hypothesis, which is what much speculative history is about, at least until time that the speculations are shown to be far-fetched.

    It seems unfair for Wallace to accuse Batchelor of proceeding from dogmatic scientism if all the latter is doing is to follow the argument using empirical, evidence-based methods in contrast to faith-based, scripture-based or subjective experienced-based alternatives. It is also ironic that Wallace, having poo-pooed scientific dogmatism, then appeals to, presumably, "good science" (i.e. the science brought to the Shamarta Project) as evidence that Buddhist meditation has a respectable scientific pedigree and, therefore, Batchelor is behind the times in not acknowledging that.

    The rest of Wallace's article, as the comments pointed out, is not really relevant, has questionable logic and is very defensive - the kind of thing one might expect from an earnest minister of the church in defending his faith.

    Stephen Batchelor has written a response to Alan Wallace, which I've bookmarked but not yet read. It's at http://www.mandalamagazine.org/archives ... n-wallace/.

  10. #10
    Senior Member kirkmc's Avatar
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    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Interesting, measured reply from Batchelor. It's true that Wallace loses all credibility, for me, when he says this:

    While Batchelor focuses on replacing the historical teachings of the Buddha with his own secularized vision and Harris rails at the suffering inflicted upon humanity by religious dogmatists, both tend to overlook the fact that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong caused more bloodshed, justified by their secular ideologies, than all the religious wars that preceded them throughout human history.
    That is the argument that fundamentalist Christians always pull out when debating with or discussing atheists. It is so intellectually weak that anyone who uses that card shows that they're just parotting a bunch of talking points.

  11. #11

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Batchelor's response won me, though the bit where he contested Wallace's selection of proof-texts with his own left me a bit cold. The Pali Canon is full of things the Buddha is supposed to have said that seem either highly dubious or indicative that he really was a man of his time.

    A more significant issue is the extent to which the Buddhadharma can be developed and still remain true to the core messages taught by the Buddha. Our two disputants seem to take a radical vs conservative view on this. Although both pay respect to the Pali Canon, Wallace's view is one I am more familiar with among conservative Theravadins.

    I feel quite comfortable with Batchelor's concluding comments as long as he is referring to Buddhism in the West.

    Some of us believe that if the Dharma is to breathe again with the same creativity and vitality that characterized all its schools at their inception, it will need a reformation.

    The East has a different view of "reform" and may wish to incorporate it within traditional forms of doctrine and practice. I think it will take a long time here, whereas Western Buddhism is still fairly pliable.

  12. #12

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Hi,

    I had a chance to re-read this book a bit more closely while traveling last week.

    First, I agree that Mr. Batchelor practiced in a particular flavor of Korean Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and it would have been good if he had had more exposure to Shikantaza (or even Dzogchen in his Tibetan days). So, his presentation of all of Zen Buddhism (even all of Tibetan Buddhism) may be a bit narrow sometimes.

    Nonetheless, I am always interested in Buddhist practitioners who are trying to see through the (in my view) "hocus pocus", superstition and exaggeration often tangled up with this wondrous Path. I am very much of the same flavor as Stephen Batchelor on these issues, perhaps even more direct about my views.

    For example, as some have noted, I think he tries very hard to find or recast 'the original Buddha's views' in the Suttas to back up and mesh with his views. Well, sometimes I think we can do so, and at other times I think it is alright to admit that we do not truly know (lost in the fog of time) the historical Buddha's views, that the Buddha was likely just a man of his times and culture who was wise beyond wise on some things, perhaps narrow or ill-informed on others ... and that it is not even truly necessary to know or to worry so much about 'what the Buddha said 2500 years ago' ...

    [O]ne thing for folks to remember is that Buddhism did change and evolve over many centuries, as it passed from culture to culture in Asia. The Buddha lived 2500 years ago in ancient India, whereupon the philosophy passed to China 1000 years later, and then to someone like Master Dogen who lived about 1000 years after that in medieval Japan. You and I live in the strange world known as the 21st century. Certainly, some changes arose along the way in some important interpretations and outer forms. For example, the Chinese made Zen Practice very Chinese, the Japanese very medieval Japanese, and now we are making it very Western.

    However, the Heart of the Buddha's teachings ... the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Non-Self, Non-Attachment, the Middle Way, etc. etc., ... All are here now as much as there then!!

    How?

    On the one hand some outer stuff is, well, changed. For example, when Buddhism came to China it was heavily influenced by, and pretty much merged with, Taoism (not to mention that it was already "Mahayana Buddhism" by that time, a very different flavor from the original). The result was this little thing we now call "Zen Buddhism". So, congratulations, we are already "Taoists" and "Mahayana Buddhists" ... not just "Buddhists". (In fact, the Mahayanists made a habit of 'putting down' the earlier teachings of the Suttas as the Hinayana 'lesser vehicle', though taking pains to explain that the Buddha meant the Suttas as 'remedial' teachings for spiritual slow pokes!) When it got to Japan, the Japanese added Japanese culture to it. In the West, we are now making some very good changes (although we have to, of course, try to avoid bad changes). These good changes include equality of the sexes and a greater emphasis on lay practice.

    But it is still Buddhism. What Dogen taught was Buddhism. What we do around Treeleaf (I do believe) is as Buddhism as Buddhism can be.

    I will even go so far as to say (and this is the kind of statement that has gotten me into all kinds of trouble on with some folks in Buddhism's own fundamentalist quarters) that maybe, just maybe, later Buddhism actually made some big and important "improvements" to the Buddha's original formulation with all those additions, and a couple of thousand years of working out the kinks and bugs (Actually, that is what the Mahayanists always thought about themselves vis-a-vis the 'lesser vehicle'). It is much like saying that Buddha was Henry Ford, who first thought up the brilliant idea of sticking 4 wheels on an internal combustion engine, but now we can drive a Prius! I even say that maybe, just maybe, the Buddha was not infallible on every darn thing. Not on the vital heart of the teachings, mind you. But while he was 90% right in his proposals, he maybe also had some klunkers and narrow ideas here and there (as fits a man who lived in a traditional, myth based society some 2500 years ago in ancient India) ... like the whole thing about an overly mechanical view of rebirth, the place of women, the need to abandon the world and family in order to Practice and to repress or extinquish (as opposed to moderate & balance & pierce) the desires and emotions, and some other elements of myth and superstition from Indian culture of the times. ... No problem, because the stuff that the Buddha was a genius about is WORTH THE WHOLE PRICE OF ADMISSION!

    And Dogen was different from Shakyamuni Buddha, who are both different from all of us!

    But when we are sitting a moment of Zazen ... perfectly whole, just complete unto itself, without borders and duration, not long or short, nothing to add or take away, containing all moments and no moments in "this one moment" ... piercing Dukkha, attaining non-self, non-attached ... then there is not the slightest gap between each of us and the Buddha.
    I believe that folks like Stephen Batchelor doing us a big service by dropping (in my view) "hocus pocus", superstition and exaggeration often tangled up with this wondrous Path. Unlike Mr. Batchelor, I would not term myself an "atheist" on questions such as literal, mechanical rebirth as much as a 'very skeptical, yet open to any possibility agnostic' ...

    viewtopic.php?p=42765#p42765

    On the other hand (and I think Stephen Batchelor would describe himself the same way here), I really do not consider myself a "materialist" either. I wrote this to someone elsewhere (also posted on another thread today):

    I do not consider myself a "materialist" [in the meaning that all that is 'truly true' is the physical atoms and energy driven by cold, blind physical laws that seem to guide the universe].

    I believe this life is, in whole or large part, a kind of dream ... as most Buddhists do. A dream fashioned by the mind amid emptiness, probably from something outside our eyes (maybe not even anything 'outside' according to schools of Buddhism), but a mind created interpretation of that 'outside stuff' nonetheless. Dogen described our life as a "Dream within a Dream", so dreamy ... a dream of life, but our lives nonetheless.

    I also believe that there are "more thing in heaven and earth than dreamed in your philosophy, Horatio" ... I often say that people of future centuries will look back at many of our firmly held beliefs and chuckle at our quaintness ("Oh Martha, do you know that folks way back in the 21st century still believed in Darwin, Equality of the Sexes and the Law of Gravity!?"). Furthermore, there are countless worlds ... whole muli-verse universes with perhaps varying histories and physics at work ... where even dragons might fly and fairies grant wishes.

    But that does not mean that dragons fly and fairies grant wishes on our world.

    But, I am drifting off topic.

    It is just that, in this dream, I do not necessarily believe that, even if I dream them, there are necessarily Loch Ness monsters, Yetis, Fairies, Trolls, broom riding Witches or UFOs (although I certainly believe in Sentient Beings on countless other worlds). I am doubtful of distance healing, palm reading, hungry ghosts who haunt us (if literal, not figurative or psychological), mind reading and levitation (pending some verifiable evidence otherwise ... I am a great skeptic, but an open minded skeptic).

    So, although it is "all a dream" and not real in the least ... still, some things in that dream may be more real than others (yes, that is a Koan, one of the main themes of many Koans in fact).

    As I have said many times, I honor and respect the right of anyone to practice Buddhism as they wish. I hold no monopoly. If they wish to believe, for example, in flawless and ideal Buddhist personages of the past, magic powers and events, levitation, literal rebirth as ducks or gods (you name it), I salute them. What is more, they may be right (and my doubts misplaced).

    But some of us don't believe in such things (better said, are great skeptics to the point of disbelief), yet our Buddhist practice too (to quote you) ...

    ... sees through and gets beyond, and once beyond them, such things sit lightly

    We think that many of the legends about Buddhas and ancestors are myths (meaning that they probably are "exaggerated and made up stories" presenting very idealized images ... although even myths, as fiction, have value as speaking to human truths), that many "Sutta/Sutra" are creative writing by very "not really the Buddha" authors (some inspired and brilliant, some not very), that most of the claimed "magic and supernormal powers" in Buddhist legend probably never happens/ed (and I am not talking about "the magic of this ordinary life, all around us". That magic I believe in.).

    Nonethless, our Buddhism/Zen Practice feels Wholly Whole and Completely Complete to us, for us, as us. I do not teach for all Buddhists, or even all Zen Buddhists ... but I do teach for the Zen Buddhists who may need to hear such a message, and who may be relieved to know that some of us consider the more "unbelievable" aspects of Buddhist claims to be unnecessary and perhaps (emphasis on "perhaps") a kind of ignorance and belief in baseless superstition fully equivalent to a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, broom riding witches and palm reading.
    Let me say again that different human beings, Buddhists and Zen Buddhists may benefit from different paths. I am pointing out a path to those folks who may be skeptical, questioning or rejecting of certain traditional aspects of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, yet wonder if they thus "can still practice Zen Buddhism in a sound way." I want to show them that they can.

    What is more, I think that Buddhism has passed through 2500 years of traditional societies with traditional beliefs. Now, we are entering a time when science, historical research, and changes in social values are casting great doubt upon, or placing great pressure on, many of our traditional tenets and beliefs. I then ask myself whether, without those elements, the Buddhist/Zen Way is still viable and worthwhile. I believe, beyond doubt, that it is.

    What are examples of the areas that some skeptical students doubt and/or modern times are challenging? Here are a few examples (no surprises in the list):

    1 - The reality of (and need to believe in to be a "Buddhist") literal, mechanical models of 'post-mortem' rebirth and "1-to-1" cause-effect views of Karma.

    2 - Idealistic hagiographic biographies of Buddhas and Ancestors, often filled with super-powers, super-human feats, fantastic creatures and settings, and the like (except for their figurative or psychological meanings, as in many myths, pointing to truths of the human condition).

    3 - The infallible nature of "Sutras" as the "word of the Buddha" (when all were written by human authors of varying insight and talent, though religiously inspired, from their own imaginations and philosophizings).

    4 - The "magic" effects of such things as protective talisman, Dharani or ceremonies and the like (literally, and not limited to their psychological effects on the hearer).

    Those are just examples.

    I am in no way a critic of anyone who believes in those things as part of their Buddhism. I just speak to those Buddhists who do not believe in such things ... and, themselves, are often criticized by other Buddhists as "not being Buddhist enough" because of their skepticism or rejection of such "core" beliefs.

    What is more, I do not share your view that such is a "given of modern life, and not controversial" among Buddhists. I think they are incredibly controversial still among Western Buddhists, as the controversy surrounding folks like Stephen Batchelor shows. What is more, in a Europe and America where often sometimes the majority or a great plurality of the population in polls profess to believe in any manner of things from ouiji boards to crystals to God's having planted the dinosaur bones to trick us ... I would not be so sure. I have found many Buddhists to be, perhaps even more than the general population, attracted to what I personally believe are questionable New Agey beliefs of various sorts.

    Add the many corners of Buddhism such as Shugden (if this is bashing anyone from another corner of Buddhism, moderators, let me know and I will remove it) and the like, "prosperity teachings" of a certain Buddhist group very popular in the West and, in the Zen world, the apparent wildness over at OBC, and I would challenge your assertion about how "down to earth" and non-superstitious we are.

    http://obcconnect.forumotion.net/t142-o ... planations

    http://obcconnect.forumotion.net/t68-fi ... e-buddhism

    someone wrote:
    There's definitely a greater acceptance of "mythic-magical" thinking among Buddhists in Asia (as compared with Western Buddhists) in my opinion. And it's probably very helpful to most people. This is especially true in regards to beliefs about an afterlife, the Pure Land, and the spirits (souls) of departed ancestors.


    Oh, I believe that it can be helpful and comforting to people to be told these stories even if "made up". What is more, some people may need to be told such stories, and that is right for them. And what's more, they may not be "stories" and might be true and not "made up" (and my belief that most are probably not literally true might be mistaken.). However, I tend to believe that it is helpful in the same way I told our 7 year old that his beloved pet bird who died "surely went to heaven to be with grandma". It was a way to comfort him, let him maybe have a small taste of something more subtle. In other words, it was okay to "fib" to him (fib to him though I was not so sure the bird went to be with grandma ... and, well, who knows ... it might have! In fact, it surely did from the viewpoint of Emptiness!).
    Gassho, Jundo

  13. #13

    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Thank you very much Jundo. Your explanation is a major reason I like Treeleaf so much.

    Gassho,
    Tom

  14. #14
    Senior Member Ekai's Avatar
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    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    Hi,

    I had a chance to re-read this book a bit more closely while traveling last week.

    First, I agree that Mr. Batchelor practiced in a particular flavor of Korean Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and it would have been good if he had had more exposure to Shikantaza (or even Dzogchen in his Tibetan days). So, his presentation of all of Zen Buddhism (even all of Tibetan Buddhism) may be a bit narrow sometimes.

    Nonetheless, I am always interested in Buddhist practitioners who are trying to see through the (in my view) "hocus pocus", superstition and exaggeration often tangled up with this wondrous Path. I am very much of the same flavor as Stephen Batchelor on these issues, perhaps even more direct about my views.

    For example, as some have noted, I think he tries very hard to find or recast 'the original Buddha's views' in the Suttas to back up and mesh with his views. Well, sometimes I think we can do so, and at other times I think it is alright to admit that we do not truly know (lost in the fog of time) the historical Buddha's views, that the Buddha was likely just a man of his times and culture who was wise beyond wise on some things, perhaps narrow or ill-informed on others ... and that it is not even truly necessary to know or to worry so much about 'what the Buddha said 2500 years ago' ...

    [O]ne thing for folks to remember is that Buddhism did change and evolve over many centuries, as it passed from culture to culture in Asia. The Buddha lived 2500 years ago in ancient India, whereupon the philosophy passed to China 1000 years later, and then to someone like Master Dogen who lived about 1000 years after that in medieval Japan. You and I live in the strange world known as the 21st century. Certainly, some changes arose along the way in some important interpretations and outer forms. For example, the Chinese made Zen Practice very Chinese, the Japanese very medieval Japanese, and now we are making it very Western.

    However, the Heart of the Buddha's teachings ... the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Non-Self, Non-Attachment, the Middle Way, etc. etc., ... All are here now as much as there then!!

    How?

    On the one hand some outer stuff is, well, changed. For example, when Buddhism came to China it was heavily influenced by, and pretty much merged with, Taoism (not to mention that it was already "Mahayana Buddhism" by that time, a very different flavor from the original). The result was this little thing we now call "Zen Buddhism". So, congratulations, we are already "Taoists" and "Mahayana Buddhists" ... not just "Buddhists". (In fact, the Mahayanists made a habit of 'putting down' the earlier teachings of the Suttas as the Hinayana 'lesser vehicle', though taking pains to explain that the Buddha meant the Suttas as 'remedial' teachings for spiritual slow pokes!) When it got to Japan, the Japanese added Japanese culture to it. In the West, we are now making some very good changes (although we have to, of course, try to avoid bad changes). These good changes include equality of the sexes and a greater emphasis on lay practice.

    But it is still Buddhism. What Dogen taught was Buddhism. What we do around Treeleaf (I do believe) is as Buddhism as Buddhism can be.

    I will even go so far as to say (and this is the kind of statement that has gotten me into all kinds of trouble on with some folks in Buddhism's own fundamentalist quarters) that maybe, just maybe, later Buddhism actually made some big and important "improvements" to the Buddha's original formulation with all those additions, and a couple of thousand years of working out the kinks and bugs (Actually, that is what the Mahayanists always thought about themselves vis-a-vis the 'lesser vehicle'). It is much like saying that Buddha was Henry Ford, who first thought up the brilliant idea of sticking 4 wheels on an internal combustion engine, but now we can drive a Prius! I even say that maybe, just maybe, the Buddha was not infallible on every darn thing. Not on the vital heart of the teachings, mind you. But while he was 90% right in his proposals, he maybe also had some klunkers and narrow ideas here and there (as fits a man who lived in a traditional, myth based society some 2500 years ago in ancient India) ... like the whole thing about an overly mechanical view of rebirth, the place of women, the need to abandon the world and family in order to Practice and to repress or extinquish (as opposed to moderate & balance & pierce) the desires and emotions, and some other elements of myth and superstition from Indian culture of the times. ... No problem, because the stuff that the Buddha was a genius about is WORTH THE WHOLE PRICE OF ADMISSION!

    And Dogen was different from Shakyamuni Buddha, who are both different from all of us!

    But when we are sitting a moment of Zazen ... perfectly whole, just complete unto itself, without borders and duration, not long or short, nothing to add or take away, containing all moments and no moments in "this one moment" ... piercing Dukkha, attaining non-self, non-attached ... then there is not the slightest gap between each of us and the Buddha.
    I believe that folks like Stephen Batchelor doing us a big service by dropping (in my view) "hocus pocus", superstition and exaggeration often tangled up with this wondrous Path. Unlike Mr. Batchelor, I would not term myself an "atheist" on questions such as literal, mechanical rebirth as much as a 'very skeptical, yet open to any possibility agnostic' ...

    viewtopic.php?p=42765#p42765

    On the other hand (and I think Stephen Batchelor would describe himself the same way here), I really do not consider myself a "materialist" either. I wrote this to someone elsewhere (also posted on another thread today):

    I do not consider myself a "materialist" [in the meaning that all that is 'truly true' is the physical atoms and energy driven by cold, blind physical laws that seem to guide the universe].

    I believe this life is, in whole or large part, a kind of dream ... as most Buddhists do. A dream fashioned by the mind amid emptiness, probably from something outside our eyes (maybe not even anything 'outside' according to schools of Buddhism), but a mind created interpretation of that 'outside stuff' nonetheless. Dogen described our life as a "Dream within a Dream", so dreamy ... a dream of life, but our lives nonetheless.

    I also believe that there are "more thing in heaven and earth than dreamed in your philosophy, Horatio" ... I often say that people of future centuries will look back at many of our firmly held beliefs and chuckle at our quaintness ("Oh Martha, do you know that folks way back in the 21st century still believed in Darwin, Equality of the Sexes and the Law of Gravity!?"). Furthermore, there are countless worlds ... whole muli-verse universes with perhaps varying histories and physics at work ... where even dragons might fly and fairies grant wishes.

    But that does not mean that dragons fly and fairies grant wishes on our world.

    But, I am drifting off topic.

    It is just that, in this dream, I do not necessarily believe that, even if I dream them, there are necessarily Loch Ness monsters, Yetis, Fairies, Trolls, broom riding Witches or UFOs (although I certainly believe in Sentient Beings on countless other worlds). I am doubtful of distance healing, palm reading, hungry ghosts who haunt us (if literal, not figurative or psychological), mind reading and levitation (pending some verifiable evidence otherwise ... I am a great skeptic, but an open minded skeptic).

    So, although it is "all a dream" and not real in the least ... still, some things in that dream may be more real than others (yes, that is a Koan, one of the main themes of many Koans in fact).

    As I have said many times, I honor and respect the right of anyone to practice Buddhism as they wish. I hold no monopoly. If they wish to believe, for example, in flawless and ideal Buddhist personages of the past, magic powers and events, levitation, literal rebirth as ducks or gods (you name it), I salute them. What is more, they may be right (and my doubts misplaced).

    But some of us don't believe in such things (better said, are great skeptics to the point of disbelief), yet our Buddhist practice too (to quote you) ...

    ... sees through and gets beyond, and once beyond them, such things sit lightly

    We think that many of the legends about Buddhas and ancestors are myths (meaning that they probably are "exaggerated and made up stories" presenting very idealized images ... although even myths, as fiction, have value as speaking to human truths), that many "Sutta/Sutra" are creative writing by very "not really the Buddha" authors (some inspired and brilliant, some not very), that most of the claimed "magic and supernormal powers" in Buddhist legend probably never happens/ed (and I am not talking about "the magic of this ordinary life, all around us". That magic I believe in.).

    Nonethless, our Buddhism/Zen Practice feels Wholly Whole and Completely Complete to us, for us, as us. I do not teach for all Buddhists, or even all Zen Buddhists ... but I do teach for the Zen Buddhists who may need to hear such a message, and who may be relieved to know that some of us consider the more "unbelievable" aspects of Buddhist claims to be unnecessary and perhaps (emphasis on "perhaps") a kind of ignorance and belief in baseless superstition fully equivalent to a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, broom riding witches and palm reading.
    Let me say again that different human beings, Buddhists and Zen Buddhists may benefit from different paths. I am pointing out a path to those folks who may be skeptical, questioning or rejecting of certain traditional aspects of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, yet wonder if they thus "can still practice Zen Buddhism in a sound way." I want to show them that they can.

    What is more, I think that Buddhism has passed through 2500 years of traditional societies with traditional beliefs. Now, we are entering a time when science, historical research, and changes in social values are casting great doubt upon, or placing great pressure on, many of our traditional tenets and beliefs. I then ask myself whether, without those elements, the Buddhist/Zen Way is still viable and worthwhile. I believe, beyond doubt, that it is.

    What are examples of the areas that some skeptical students doubt and/or modern times are challenging? Here are a few examples (no surprises in the list):

    1 - The reality of (and need to believe in to be a "Buddhist") literal, mechanical models of 'post-mortem' rebirth and "1-to-1" cause-effect views of Karma.

    2 - Idealistic hagiographic biographies of Buddhas and Ancestors, often filled with super-powers, super-human feats, fantastic creatures and settings, and the like (except for their figurative or psychological meanings, as in many myths, pointing to truths of the human condition).

    3 - The infallible nature of "Sutras" as the "word of the Buddha" (when all were written by human authors of varying insight and talent, though religiously inspired, from their own imaginations and philosophizings).

    4 - The "magic" effects of such things as protective talisman, Dharani or ceremonies and the like (literally, and not limited to their psychological effects on the hearer).

    Those are just examples.

    I am in no way a critic of anyone who believes in those things as part of their Buddhism. I just speak to those Buddhists who do not believe in such things ... and, themselves, are often criticized by other Buddhists as "not being Buddhist enough" because of their skepticism or rejection of such "core" beliefs.

    What is more, I do not share your view that such is a "given of modern life, and not controversial" among Buddhists. I think they are incredibly controversial still among Western Buddhists, as the controversy surrounding folks like Stephen Batchelor shows. What is more, in a Europe and America where often sometimes the majority or a great plurality of the population in polls profess to believe in any manner of things from ouiji boards to crystals to God's having planted the dinosaur bones to trick us ... I would not be so sure. I have found many Buddhists to be, perhaps even more than the general population, attracted to what I personally believe are questionable New Agey beliefs of various sorts.

    Add the many corners of Buddhism such as Shugden (if this is bashing anyone from another corner of Buddhism, moderators, let me know and I will remove it) and the like, "prosperity teachings" of a certain Buddhist group very popular in the West and, in the Zen world, the apparent wildness over at OBC, and I would challenge your assertion about how "down to earth" and non-superstitious we are.

    http://obcconnect.forumotion.net/t142-o ... planations

    http://obcconnect.forumotion.net/t68-fi ... e-buddhism

    someone wrote:
    There's definitely a greater acceptance of "mythic-magical" thinking among Buddhists in Asia (as compared with Western Buddhists) in my opinion. And it's probably very helpful to most people. This is especially true in regards to beliefs about an afterlife, the Pure Land, and the spirits (souls) of departed ancestors.


    Oh, I believe that it can be helpful and comforting to people to be told these stories even if "made up". What is more, some people may need to be told such stories, and that is right for them. And what's more, they may not be "stories" and might be true and not "made up" (and my belief that most are probably not literally true might be mistaken.). However, I tend to believe that it is helpful in the same way I told our 7 year old that his beloved pet bird who died "surely went to heaven to be with grandma". It was a way to comfort him, let him maybe have a small taste of something more subtle. In other words, it was okay to "fib" to him (fib to him though I was not so sure the bird went to be with grandma ... and, well, who knows ... it might have! In fact, it surely did from the viewpoint of Emptiness!).
    Gassho, Jundo
    In the first years of my practice when I was studying Tibetan Buddhism, I did a lot of the energy/chakra/visualization mediations and the like. At that time of my life, it was fine. It was quite healing actually, but I was in a really, low place in the beginning of my practice. As time went on, I slowly let go of those types of meditations and changed to just breathing & counting meditations then to insight/mindfulness meditation and now Zazen. I feel the mindfulness meditation and Zazen are more beneficial to the Buddhist practice and allows you to see into your true being. It is stripped away of all the clutter down to the bare essence. I definitely prefer it over what I was practicing before. I have not done the other meditations for quite some time now. It has been a slow process but one that I am grateful for. Things change and flow in its own place, in its own time.

    Thanks,
    Jodi

  15. #15
    Senior Member Hoyu's Avatar
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    Re: Book: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor

    Quote Originally Posted by TomB
    Thank you very much Jundo. Your explanation is a major reason I like Treeleaf so much.

    Gassho,
    Tom
    I totally agree!

    Gassho,
    John

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