Often people say that it's hard to tell whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. This makes me give it a semi-enthusiastic churchless thumbs-up.
I enjoy the Buddhist way of looking at reality. It's the religious side of Buddhism that gives me pause. So whenever I come across a writer who is knowledgeable about subtracting religiosity from Buddhism, I'm eager to read what he or she has to say.
My favorite author in this genre is Stephen Bachelor. His "Buddhism Without Beliefs" is a terrific book. When I feel in the need of some godless inspiration, I pick it up.
As I mentioned in a recent post where I shared some Bachelor quotes, I was excited to come across a Master's thesis on his web site: "A Critical Examination of the Agnostic Buddhism of Stephen Bachelor."
This morning I carried my laptop into my meditation nook and read Marjorie Silverman's thoughtful, well-written analysis while sipping a strong cup of Zambian coffee.
She's an excellent thinker. And a fine writer. Silverman ends up concluding that while many Buddhists don't like how Bachelor strips religiosity out of their faith's teachings, this is very much in line with Buddhism.
This pared down and exposed Buddhism is perhaps less a Buddhism without beliefs, and more a Buddhism without baggage.
The introduction to her thesis is a nice short summary of Bachelor's bare bones Buddhism.
Batchelor advocates a return to what he claims are the historically agnostic roots of Buddhism that were lost through institutionalization. He presents an agnosticism that he asserts is just as challenging as traditional belief systems. To be an agnostic requires an enormous amount of commitment as it forces us to “confront the enormity of having been born”. It entails a “passionate recognition” that we don’t know the answers to why we were born or what we are doing on this planet.
Bachelor considers that traditional Buddhist notions of rebirth and karma need to be stripped of unfounded metaphysics that is a carryover from Buddhism's beginnings in Indian culture.
In Chapter 5 Silverman addresses the central critiques of Bachelor by several Buddhist scholars. One is that he is a "scientific materialist." (That doesn't sound like much of an epithet to my churchless ears, but I guess it's a putdown if you're into mainstream Buddhism.)
I'll share Silverman's treatment of this issue in its entirety because (1) Bachelor's attitude toward science and metaphysical phenomena is close to my own, and (2) I feel that he makes darn good sense -- not surprisingly.
Punnadhammo asserts that Batchelor’s agnosticism is equivalent to materialism because it does not accept as valid phenomena that are beyond rational explanation. He also suggests that it upholds a self-view that is incompatible with the Buddhist doctrine of not-self. Sangharakshita asserts that there are limits to human reason and that religious phenomena cannot be explained by science. Is it true that Batchelor is denigrating the Dharma by upholding human reason and the scientific process?
While it is valid to say that Batchelor is an advocate of rational thought, he does not pedestalize human reason or science at the expense of metaphysical phenomena. The main message of Batchelor’s agnosticism is the following: “I don’t know”. This is extremely different from an outright “No”. Batchelor is not denying that metaphysical phenomena exist; he is simply stating that it is not only difficult, but pointless, to try to prove their existence. It is the questions, not the answers, that are meaningful. According to Batchelor, when questioning is hindered, the whole goal of Buddhist practice dissolves.
Batchelor is not reifying human reason at the expense of the supernatural. On the contrary, Batchelor’s agnosticism expresses respect for the potential magnitude of the supernatural or other-worldly. He is asserting that such phenomena, which cannot be explained by reason, also cannot be explained by uncritical belief. They are too large and too multi-faceted to be placed into a narrow category of definition. Defining as belief something that is completely beyond the human realm, such as rebirth, reduces the phenomena into something graspable, yet also safe and one-dimensional. According to Batchelor, the only way to honour the magnitude and multi-dimensionality of a concept like rebirth is to conceptualize it as a question.
According to Batchelor, having the faith to surrender into this state of unknowing and perplexity is the very essence of not-self. All the things that we cling to for identity, the things that normally make up what we regard as our “self”, come under scrutiny and questioning. Thus, far from opposing the Buddhist doctrine of not-self, Batchelor claims that the only way to achieve such a realization of emptiness is to fully examine and to question all facets of one’s life. It is when other-worldly phenomena are made into concrete beliefs for the sake of self-definition and security, that the self is upheld and pedestalized. For example, a belief in rebirth provides a sense of self-definition and purpose. It is this constant focus on the self, rather than its perplexed counterpart, that contradicts the Buddhist notion of not-self.
In this respect, Batchelor’s agnosticism is not, as the critics claim, the equivalent of materialism. Materialism implies a complete denial of anything beyond rational comprehension. Batchelor, however, only claims that we cannot make definitive statements about non-rational phenomena. He does not deny their existence outright. Batchelor writes: “In refusing to be drawn into the answers of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, ‘it is this’ and ‘it is not that’, it lets go of the extremes of affirmation and negation, something and nothing.”