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After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
January 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Stephen Batchelor
Total Pages: 
Yale Univ. Press

Stephen Batchelor has written several books about Buddhism. He lectures and conducts meditation retreats worldwide. He is a contributing editor of Tricycle and is director of studies of the Sharpton College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry, Devon, England. This book contains much that is not in Book 735.

I bought the paperback edition but give next Amazon’s website for the Kindle edition:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a good review (click on ‘Read more’). I recommend the much more detailed review (click on ‘Read more’) by ‘sudofo’ further down the home page under the heading Top Customer Reviews, where you will also find two short reviews – one by ‘Book Lover,’ and the next review (by ‘Amazon Customer’), for these two focus briefly on different points. Next use Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option for the Kindle preview and scroll down to the Contents. Note that author alternates his chapters – he uses the five even-numbered chapters to discuss in detail Gotama’s (the first Buddha) encounters with the five named persons. For each of these five Gotama talks with a different person whose views reflect their different focus in life – a focus much changed by talking with Gotama.

The 3-pp Preface is included in the Kindle preview. It also has the first 22 pages of the 28-pp Ch. 1 – After Buddhism. However, the author describes on pages 26-28 the principles he used to be sure the material he was using was from the era of Gotama’s life. A few quotes are in order from the omitted pages of Ch. 1. “My starting point in dealing with dogmatic statements is to bracket off anything attributed to Gotama that could just as well have been said by another wanderer, Jain monk, or brahmin priest of the same period.” …”Tentatively, I suggest that bracketing off such metaphysical views leaves us with four central ideas that do not appear to have direct precedents in Indian tradition. I call them the ‘four P’s”:

• The ‘principle’ of conditionality – that the happiness and joy that arose in Gotama were “conditioned by life, that is, the delight of life; that life is impermanent, difficult, and changing, that is the tragedy of life; the removal and abandonment of grasping for life, that is the emancipation of life.”
• The ‘practice’ of a fourfold task – discussed below in detail as the main topic of Ch. 3.
• The ‘perspective’ of mindful awareness – needed for you to accomplish your fourfold task.
• The ‘power’ of self-reliance – coming from within you, not from a sage or a dogma, in the practice of the way of the dharma.

Before returning to the odd-numbered chapters, I have a bit to say about the five even-numbered ones. I found them to be especially interesting. These five stories were chosen for two reasons. First, the author’s research focused on characters who lived during the time of Gotoma’s teachings – so their different situations show us how Gotama did not develop anything like a creed or rules like most religions develop over time. Second, these five chapters show how questions asked of Gotama were answered by him in what the author stresses were ‘situational ethics,’ with Gotama answering often with related questions that were designed to ‘draw out’ of the other person self-generated answers that could lead to their agreement of that which one can come to agree with. This requires thoughtful consideration and critique of the topics under discussion. This technique is one we probably learned first from our readings of Socrates' style of teaching. But Gotama’s companion (four of the five) decided to declare themselves as either followers or teachers of Gotama’s way of life – the entering into the ‘way of Dharma’ and the continual effort and growth that one can obtain from this commitment. The author uses a good analogy to describe any person entering into the ‘awakening’ required to advance along the way of Dharma. Gotama’s analogy is a river with a current – to advance in the way of Dharma is to have to swim against the current. For if you just let the current carry you along is to follow the normal lifestyle of the community (or country) where one, perhaps unknowingly, ‘just ‘goes with the flow’ by doing what was expected in that society for a normal person to do. Going with the flow does not lead to the enlightenment of the way of Dharma.

The six odd-numbered chapters do not focus on individuals (except Gotama, of course), but focus on the concepts that came from within Gotama during his gradual discovery of the ‘way of Dharma.’ Chapter 1 – After Buddhism – is about the more general topic that describes Stephen Batchelor’s study of the initial (or ancient) wisdom that came to Gotama as he devoted himself to learning what were the most important things one should do in life. He focused only on orthopraxy (what one does) and ignores orthodoxy (what one believes to be true). This provides a background for the rest of this book. Much of this chapter may be familiar with those who have studied Buddhism of some type. Deviations from Gotama’s time and place are many. Generally, all spiritual or religious systems have gone through various modifications – additions or subtractions or rewording. Religious systems have sometimes ‘gone with the flow’ and sometimes ‘swam against the current’ of the norms in the time period of the civilization in which one lives.

Despite Gotama’s strong statements that he is not a god, it didn’t take long for some in the civilization of India to declare him a god; this idea mainly came from converts from Hinduism, most of whom were polygamous, with many gods. Converting Hindus to Buddhism probably led to more converts when the Buddhists wanted Gotama to be their God. And Gotama’s Fourfold Task became renamed the Four Noble Truths. The author doesn’t say when or where this change from tasks to truths took place.

I turn now to Ch. 3 – A Fourfold Task. Before this is discussed, there are ‘simpler’ thoughts found by the author. I learned much from this chapter. His focus on the time of Gotama’s life brought him very insightful thoughts: “Towards the end of his life Gotama would insist that the only true refuges were one’s self and the dharma.” …”No priest or teacher, no church or temple, no sacred text, is of any help when you are confronting the existential issues of your life and death.” [Many people believe otherwise - that others can help you find the inner truth you accept as inherently or intuitively true.]

“The lawfulness of conditioned arising implies that a life according to the dharma is a life based on reason.” …”The discourses are a showcase for Gotama’s skill in dialectical reasoning. His authority is not that of a guru who imposes his views on his followers because of their faith in his enlightenment. He consistently debates with and persuades his interlocutors though the use of reason. Because his concern is to change the way people live, his reason is practical rather than theoretical. He uses reason to help others decide how to think, speak, and act. He has no interest in pursuing an abstract argument to demonstrate a purely theoretical truth. His practical reason is ethical. Its first principle could be stated thus: ‘Do no evil. Take up what is good. Purify the mind. This is the teaching of buddhas.’ [It is important to realize that in Gotama’s time, he and other teachers considered humans to have six senses – to the five physical senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste), one must add the sixth sense of mind. [It seems to me that ‘mind’ would have to include imagination, intuition, and the transcendental.] To Gotama “To live a grounded life, means to live a life founded on ‘practical reason’.” [‘Practical reason’ must therefore also include the rational (or logical) forms of reason as well in their sixth sense of ‘mind’.]

From further along in Ch. 3 the author says: “On the basis of what we know about the awakening from ‘The Noble Quest,’ [Alexander Wynne, The Origin of Buddhist Meditation. London: Routlrdge, 2007] Gotama’s primary challenge as a teacher would have been to translate his vision of the dharma as a twofold ground into the practice of the dharma as a way of life. He had to convert an insight about conditioned arising and nirvana (his twofold ground) into an ethical, contemplative, and philosophical discipline. He had to shape something that was private, intuitive, and inchoate into a form that was accessible to others, carefully reasoned and pragmatically structured. My hypothesis is that at some point he came to conceive of the twofold ground as a fourfold task.

In classical terminology, the fourfold task is this:
• Suffering (dukkha) is to be comprehended (parinna).
• The arising (samudaya) is to be let go of (pahana).
• The ceasing (nirodha) is to be beheld (sacchikata).
• The path (magga) is to be cultivated (bhavana).
[Often the word ‘craving’ (of things for one’s self) or ‘selfishness’ or ‘reactivity’ is used instead of the word ‘arising.’ And the ceasing is overcoming such arising or craving or reactivity.]

In more colloquial language, the task can be summarized as a set of injunctions:
• Embrace life.
• Let go of what arises.
• See its ceasing.
• Act!
The next nineteen pages discuss this fourfold task in detail, leaving little to question.

Well after the lifespan of Gotama the ‘twofold ground’ of Gotama has been said to be to be twofold truths: the conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Conventional (or ordinary) truth is that people and things exist just as they appear to the naïve understanding. After Gotama’s time, some say the ultimate truth means how things ‘really’ are (whatever that means). But Stephen Batchelor could not find any evidence of Gotama teaching anything like this. It seems that he avoided such talk (and orthodoxy) as unimportant compared to his crucial focus on orthopraxy. Stephen Batchelor refers to the ultimate truth to be a critical inherent or intuitive moral concept of humans, but humans can’t easily put this into words; instead they have to ‘feel’ or ‘sense’ it. It seems to me to be the same as Christianity’s ineffable Godhead – who lies above the ‘cloud of unknowing’ that human minds don’t have what it takes to penetrate this cloud. It may be part of the sixth sense of ‘mind’ that humans have, according to Buddhist philosophy – thus the part we can’t describe with mere words, thus can’t teach it except by helping a student of the ’way’ sense it by an inspiring intuition. Ancient Chinese mystics could only say ‘He who says doesn’t know; he who knows can’t say.’ I adhere to the image of an ineffable Godhead and accept the limits of the human mind so well captured by the idea of the ineffable Godhead. So for me, the ultimate truth is God that we can comprehend and praise, while knowing as much of the ineffable Godhead as our experiences reveal and our mental capacity can comprehend.

Near the very end of Ch. 3, Stephen Batchelor makes this comparison: “Rather than a City of God, Gotama imagines a City of Contingency. To build (or rebuild) it, he calls upon the help of ‘the king or a royal minister’ to provide the resources and recruit the labor for the task. This parable shows that Gotama is concerned to establish a form of society. He may see his ‘assembly’ of adherents or mendicants as offering a model for how such a society might operate, but he needs to co-opt the ruling powers of his day to be able to translate this vision into reality. He does not wish to overthrow or replace the rulers, but to convert them to his vision.

“If we consider the fourfold task and the parable of the city to represent a sequence of steps, the result would look like this:
• Comprehending dukkha,
• letting go of reactivity,
• beholding the ceasing of reactivity,
• cultivating the eightfold path,
• building the city.
[The specifics of the eightfold path (or way) are summarized in one paragraph in Book 735.]

“This, I believe, is how Gotama translated his vision of a twofold ground of conditionality and nirvana into a way of life structured around a fourfold task. Conditionality and nirvana provide the underlying rationale for living in the world in a way that fosters individual integrity and the renewal of community. In comparing the aim of his teaching to the rebuilding of an ancient city, the Buddha presents his goal as something entirely secular. According to Buddhist orthodoxy following the eightfold path leads to the complete end of suffering by bringing the cycle of death and rebirth to an end. Hence, in contrast, following the eightfold path leads to the emergence of a city: a collaborative civic life in this world.” [End of Chapter 3.]

In this review I’ve restricted myself to the parts I found to be most important to me. As I had expected before reading this book, it gave the details of things not included in the shorter book (Book 735) by Stephen Batchelor. In these two books he has presented and explained the main features of Gotama’s Buddhism as statements of philosophy that focus on orthopraxy and ignores orthodoxy. But I could easily see how his orthopraxy is not inconsistent with my view of modern, emerging forms (or post-orthodoxy) Christianity. I had already been convinced of the importance of the emerging forms of Christianity in coming closer to how I comprehend the transcendental spiritual thinking that I have been blessed to read.

I rate this book at five stars, but suggest the reader think of it as a six-star book because of how it makes you think deeply about the how and why we should live our lives.