A New Secular Way

After Buddhismby Stephen Batchelor

Yale University Press. 400p $28.50

The Dalai Lama, though a devout Buddhist monk himself, declared recently that religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics and that the time has come for a new secular way to think about ethics and spirituality.


Stephen Batchelor follows this line of thinking in his new book, After Buddhism. Batchelor identifies himself as a product of a Protestant Christian culture, as well as an atheistic culture. He spent eight years in Tibet as a student of Tantric Buddhism and the Pali canon, and four more years in a Zen monastery in South Korea, where he sat facing a wall for 12 hours a day asking himself, “What is that?” Batchelor has moved away from monasticism to practice a secular Buddhism, not a secularized Buddhism, whose core values offer a framework for humans to develop and flourish and realize their full potential.

Batchelor offers his reinterpretations of basic Buddhist teachings to explain his secular vision. Here are two of these reinterpretations. First, Batchelor argues that the four noble truths about suffering, its cause and a way of relief from it are not statements of the nature of reality but rather are tasks to be performed. He asserts that the early teaching of the Buddha deals with know-how rather than knowledge and that this pragmatic teaching was distorted gradually and became a metaphysical explanation of the nature of suffering.

Batchelor cautions us not to see this return to the original teaching of the Buddha as a semantic game. When over time Buddhists shifted the emphasis from tasks to truths, they tacitly began to privilege belief over experience. When that happened, Buddhism lost its ethical meaning and became another Indian religion.

A second secular reinterpretation of Buddhist teaching by Batchelor is the repudiation of the “unconditioned,” or the unborn or any absolute truth that sounds like the Atman of the Vedanta or anything that is outside of our ordinary mental cognition. Beyond this ordinary cognition, which is the organization of whatever is striking our senses, the Buddha has nothing to say. In fact, the early discourses explicitly say that the Buddha woke up to “conditioned arising.” So, for example, it is irrelevant whether or not craving is the cause of suffering. Craving must be overcome because it prevents the genuine flourishing of human life.

If the early Buddhists dealt only with the conditioned, then how did the idea of the unconditioned in early Buddhism come into later Buddhism? Batchelor answers (provisionally) that many converts to Buddhism from Judaism or Christian monotheism find it hard to let go of their attachment to God or God’s surrogates, like the “unconditioned,” and have allowed a series of backsliding qualifications to enter their understanding of Buddhism.

So how does Batchelor describe his secular Buddhist life? He writes:

Fleshed out [it] would imply a way of life in which one is true to one’s potential, true to one’s deepest intuitions, true to one’s values, true to one’s friends and—as a Buddhist—true to the [dharma].... Being “true” in this sense…has to do with leading a life of integrity…where there is no room…for pretence.

Batchelor has spent decades studying and practicing Buddhism; he has vast knowledge of his subject; and his book is filled with wise and interesting comments. I hear his own Buddhist voice especially in his chapter on experience, where he urges the reader to “dwell happily in this very life” by not indulging in the occasional fantasy but by paying embodied attention to what is going on. By embodied attention he means careful attention that is nurturing and loving. This attention begins when we doubt our perceptions as things that will endure and are “mine” and experience them rather as “fleeting, tragic, empty and selfless.”

May I make a few observations from my own practice of Zen Buddhism? First, there seems to be in this book a confusion of tongues. Buddhism is so vast in extent and variety that no matter what one says about it, it is possible to say the exact opposite according to time and place. This is especially true if one argues from the original words of the Buddha, which are impossible to know or from the Pali canon, which is a collection of stories more devotional than historical. One can find in it whatever one wants to find. Batchelor admits that he is “bound to risk choices in selecting and interpreting texts that may not turn out to be viable later.”

Second, I question the validity of separating meditation on the one hand and the precepts (ethical teaching) on the other. In Zen Buddhism meditation and the precepts are one. It is impossible to have Zen without the precepts and yet Zen with only precepts is not true Zen. In practice, if one meditates without constructing ideas and imposing opinions on things as they are, then one has observed all the precepts without even intending to do so. Meditation and the precepts can be distinguished but not separated with meditation left behind.

Third, if it is questionable to separate meditation and the precepts, it is even more questionable to disparage meditation and the experience of direct seeing into human reality. The long experience across centuries and cultures from Nagarguna to Ju-ching to Dogen cannot be put aside. Zen liberates according to type and not everyone is interested in a study of ethics. They navigate instead to an awareness beyond right and wrong to an “orphan light” that leaves no traces and whose slightest touch is instantly recognizable and can be life-changing.

Finally, a word about Batchelor’s atheism. All commentators agree that the Buddha was silent about the existence of God. He would not be drawn into a statement of yes or no about what cannot be proved. There are some converts to Buddhism who bring their atheism with them into Buddhism, but they do not find it there and they should not argue about it or come down on one side or the other in the sangha of the Buddha.

Yamada Koun Roshi, speaking from his long practice as a student and then a revered Zen master, told me that he could believe in God but he could not believe that God could make a dualistic world. There is no reason, of course, why anyone who believes in God should have to believe in a dualistic world. But that is another story for another book.

After Buddhism is a learned and compassionate reflection on Buddhist practice for those for whom Buddhism as a religion has ended.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Booth
3 years 1 month ago
I greatly appreciate the manner in which you have reviewed this book. Specifically, I appreciate three main themes: (1) Your representation of Buddhist history and evolution; (2) the straightforward declaration that Buddhism was created to alleviate pain and pursue happiness and peace; and (3) that Buddhism is now often seen for what it is: a way of living one's life that leads to peace and is not a religion because it never claimed there was a godhead. In fact, the Buddha renounced his followers' inclination to worship him, saying that the Buddha-self is within you. It reminds me of the famous dictum: "The kingdom of God is within you." In other words, be quiet, find your center, reflect, and become. Thank you for the incisive and studied review.


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