Wow, I thought serious Buddhists were supposed to be full of compassion, empathy, and oneness with all sentient beings. Guess not.
Because I just quickly read through a scathing critique of Stephen Bachelor's "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist," which B. Alan Wallace hates. (Thanks to Ira for an email that turned me on to this essay in Mandala, a Buddhist magazine.)
Wallace is a leading Buddhist thinker who tries to meld science and spirituality. According to Wikipedia:
His life's work focuses on a deep engagement between Buddhist philosophical and contemplative inquiry and modern science and philosophy, with a special emphasis on exploring the nature and potentials of the mind in a radically empirical manner, as free as possible from the dogmas of religion and materialism.
Calling materialism a "dogma" offers up a clue to what bothers Wallace so much about Bachelor's book, which I've read and enjoyed (mentioned it in a few blog posts, here and here).
Wallace is very much into the supernatural side of Buddhism.
He believes in past lives and reincarnation. These are religious beliefs, since there is no proof for them. But if the Buddha supposedly taught something, no matter how little evidence there is for it, this is good enough for Wallace.
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.
Well, I'm no Zen teacher, but I'm on Batchelor's side.
I used to believe in reincarnation. Now I'm thoroughly agnostic, with a tilt toward atheistic, on this possibility. Sure, it'd be nice to have another chance at life. It strikes me as more important, though, to live this life as fully as possible.
If Buddhism is as religiously dogmatic as B. Alan Wallace makes it out to be, it's no wonder why secular Buddhist writers such as Stephen Bachelor are so popular nowadays. A commenter on Wallace's essay says:
This attack of atheists is unwarranted. Most atheists I know don’t believe in a God and as far as I know the Buddha did not believe in a God. If he did, I probably would not be a Buddhist. As such, someone who doesn’t believe in God is an atheist. Likewise, I admit that I do not believe in the Virgin Birth of either the Virgin Mary, or Achi Drolma, the Tibetan Buddhist deity. I do however, believe in parallel universes, simply because there is some evidence of that!
...Whatever our beliefs, whether we are Buddhists who believe in God, or flying saucers, or not, to say atheists and agnostics are individuals who are not concerned with awakening or “reality” as Mr. Wallace implies is an egregious error.
I think neither of the two fellows know what the Buddha said and thought. Wallace believe the Pali Cannon reflects accurately the teachings of the Buddha. How can he be so sure about that I don't know: the teaching of the Buddha was a gossip for about 500 years before being written down ... lets be real the chances he got into the canon without distortions are slim to null.
Wallace nonetheless nails Batchelor on one thing:
" In Batchelor’s most recent book,13 he refers to himself as an atheist, more so than as an agnostic, and when I asked him whether he still holds the above views expressed in his book published thirteen years ago, he replied that he no longer regards the Buddha’s teachings as agnostic, but as pragmatic.14 It should come as no surprise that as he shifted his own self-image from that of an agnostic to an atheist, the image he projects of the Buddha shifts accordingly. In short, his views on the nature of the Buddha and his teachings are far more a reflection of himself and his own views than they are of any of the most reliable historical accounts of the life and teachings of the Buddha."
Basically, X thinks Y then the Buddha thought Y ... Why does Stephen even bother bringing the Buddha in his books at this point ... marketing I guess ... needs a market and audience ... Like John Horgan wrote (http://www.slate.com/id/2078486/):
"In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself."
And people look at that comprising individual (S. Batchelor) for life advices ... what a joke ...
Posted by: the elephant | October 17, 2010 at 03:44 AM
I've been tempted to write about how Buddhism is seemingly off-limits for criticism and critical thinking.
Buddhism is full of unprovable beliefs, reincarnation being one of them. But it seems that Westerners view them all as some "higher" wisdom rather than folklore and mythology.
For example, the Dalai Lama (and other tulkus) were "recognized" when they, as young children, demonstrated their reincarnation by selecting items that belonged to the previous incarnation? Well, of course they did! (Oh, really?)
That there's a thing called "enlightenment", the attainment of which confers a complete eradication of the experience of suffering... oh? Out of all the millions of Buddhist practitioners, how many have gotten there... and what's the proof?
That meditating and following the Noble 8-Fold path reliably lead to "spiritual growth" and, eventually, enlightenment... same question as before.
My issue with Batchelor's book is that he may be atheistic about reincarnation, but he's still a true believer in everything that's leftover.
Posted by: Steven | October 17, 2010 at 08:08 AM
There is precisely as much evidence for parallel universes as there is for God, which is to say none. Both entities are deemed necessary, by two very different groups of people, to explain certain evidence that we do have. I agree with physicist Paul Davies in that we should look to within our universe for answers, and not appeal to mysterious external agencies.
Posted by: Karl Coryat | October 17, 2010 at 08:39 PM
Yip Karl, very good point.
The multiverse seems to be a very good example of something believed to be true but not proven.
However, the multiverse theory is used to fit a fairly specific ecplanation to quite a few different areas of science from an alternative interpretation of quantum mechanics to our apparently goldelocks universe.
In contrast a theory of God seems to be imbued with no specific qualities and is merely a generalised statement of existence.
It also seems to me to be more likely that evidence for multiverse might perhaps one day emerge especially if universes are continuously been created within or from other universes.
Posted by: George | October 18, 2010 at 01:12 AM
Brian, you seem to be missing Wallace's central point, a point which I completely agree with: "A legitimate option is simply to adopt those theories and practices from various Buddhist traditions that one finds compelling and beneficial and set the others aside. An illegitimate option is to reinvent the Buddha and his teachings based on one’s own prejudices."
Posted by: Todd | October 18, 2010 at 10:29 AM
Todd, the problem I have is that no one knows what the Buddha actually taught, since his supposed teachings were transmitted in an oral form for hundreds of years before being written down. See:
Can you imagine how far off the mark some communication from you or me would be after hundreds of years of people telling each other what we'd said?
There's a lot of debate in Buddhism about what the "real" teachings of the Buddha were. We'll never know. So to me Bachelor's position is as defensible as Wallace's. Wallace picks his favorite quotes, Bachelor picks his, and everybody can decide which most appeals to them.
Logically, I find Bachelor's approach more consistent with how Buddhism seems to see itself -- as an experiential practice, not a faith-based religion. Wallace, like traditional Buddhists, believes in a lot of stuff that is supernatural and unprovable. Reincarnation, rebirth, survival of consciousness in some form after death.
I read Bachelor as being more in tune with the skeptical "kill the Buddha" side of Buddhism. But I'll agree that Bachelor still has his own prejudices, as we all do, just not as many unprovable ones as Wallace holds.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | October 18, 2010 at 11:21 AM
Brian, you wrote, "....Bachelor's position is as defensible as Wallace's."
Again, this seems to evade Wallace's main issue, which is simply this: "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 of his imagination."
Wallace is simply citing "the most reliable" accounts, those accounts on which there is complete consensus in Buddhism.
On what does Batchelor base his revisionisms?
"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."
Posted by: Todd | October 18, 2010 at 02:52 PM
Todd said, "On what does Batchelor base his revisionisms?" I can't speak for Batchelor, but I base my "revised" understanding of what the Buddha taught on what's in the oldest suttas, and on the realization that how the words get translated -- in other words, the prejudices of the translator -- make a huge difference to what we understand them to be saying.
It would be wrong for someone who read the suttas, practiced what they found there, found it to be consistent, and to continue to prove itself in their lives, to allow others to silence them when they offered a different view of what's being said, especially if they can point to support in the suttas for the alternative reading, and especially if the alternative reading, if the more accurate, indicates that the traditional reading subverts a key point the Buddha was making.
Posted by: star | October 25, 2010 at 07:44 PM
elephant quoted Wallace: "In Batchelor’s most recent book, he refers to himself as an atheist, more so than as an agnostic, and when I asked him whether he still holds the above views expressed in his book published thirteen years ago, he replied that he no longer regards the Buddha’s teachings as agnostic, but as pragmatic. It should come as no surprise that as he shifted his own self-image from that of an agnostic to an atheist, the image he projects of the Buddha shifts accordingly."
I wonder how Wallace knows which came first, Batchelor's atheism followed by a change in his view that the Buddha was pragmatic, or Batchelor's view of the Buddha's position, followed by Batchelor's shift away from agnosticism.
Perhaps I read way too many suttas, but I find the Buddha's arguments able to cause me to "change my mind".
Posted by: star | October 25, 2010 at 07:53 PM
just googled my own name, alan wallace. Found this crap
Posted by: alan wallace | December 24, 2010 at 05:27 PM
alan, I hate to break this to you, but there are LOTS of Alan Wallace's in the world, and on the Internet. You're going to have to adjust to that fact. Suggestion: read some of B. Alan Wallace's books and start on the road to becoming a selfless Buddhist. Then, maybe, it won't bother you to see mentions of "your" name on the Internet.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | December 24, 2010 at 06:07 PM
I love it when people say there's no evidence for God.
If you mean scientific evidence, you're mixing up two things that have no relationship to each other.
Science at present (as Alan Wallace has tirelessly pointed out) has no evidence for the existence of consciousness. By "consciousness" I mean "what it is like to be aware" or to be sentience, to have subjective awareness of phenomena.
Brain activity, in this sense, is a correlate of verbal descriptions that scientists have accepted to be related to subjective experience. it is not evidence of subjective experience. Simple scientific evidence of this is non-REM dreams. We know that dreams take place outside of REM sleep because lucid dreamers have given signals during dreaming, while hooked up to various kinds of monitors in sleep labs.
Remember that our only "evidence" for the existence of anything is our experience of it. Without experience, there is no evidence for colors, sounds, tactile sensations, odors or taste. Measurement of sound waves, various wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum is, like the correlation of brain activity with experience, only capable of pointing to colors, sounds, etc because test subjects' verbal reports have described these various "qualia". The sound waves, etc, themselves do not constitute scientific evidence.
To put it as simply as possible, since there is no scientific evidence for consciousness (defined as above) there is no scientific evidence for the existence of the universe.
Posted by: Don Salmon | January 11, 2015 at 08:35 AM
Don Salmon, are you really saying that there is no demonstrable objective evidence for the existence of anything, because consciousness is inherently subjective?
Yes, scientists, along with everybody else, use consciousness to understand reality. And it is true that no one else has access to one's subjective consciousness.
But does this mean that dogs, trees, stars, rocks, and possibly God, only exists as subjective impressions in human consciousness? Few people agree with this except extreme idealists. You and I do not create reality. If that were the case, there would be no reliable external world governed by knowable laws of nature.
You seem to be equating the evidence for God to the evidence of a dream, hallucination, fantasy, or other purely subjective feature of human consciousness. If so, I agree. All of the evidence suggests that God exists in the mind of God-believers, not elsewhere.
Posted by: Brian Hines | January 11, 2015 at 08:50 AM
As I see it Dan Salmon is saying that there is no objective evidence that things as we see them exist. The representations in our nervous systems are convenient and useful but they do not represent an immutable and coherent reality. Even in the coarsest understandings of subatomic physics, the vast bulk of any solid material object is empty space. Now to all accounts, to "realise emptiness" which in Buddhism is a very significant stage, is to realise that what we see is a world of sense impressions that does not correspond with a deeper reality. However once you have achieved that then certain supposedly magical skills called siddhis become open to you.
I have no direct evidence for this, but I am aware of the theory, and I am well aware that Alan Wallace works closely with people who are regarded as having these capacities.
I have spent two weeks on retreat with Alan, and have spent much more time reading and reviewing his material, and working with his excellent meditation instructions. I can only say that he is exceptionally erudite, that he has a very serious concern for truthfulness and accuracy, and for scientific method. So when he attests to a deceased lama dwelling in tukdam for 18 days after the cessation of respirations (The Dalai Lama has also attested to this one), I take that seriously.
There are always issues with just how we interpret specific information, as all words are deceptive, but so far I have not been able to break through any of the information Alan has presented.
Both theist and non theist positions are non viable in Buddhist thinking- as they create a dichotomy- and a core Buddhist concept is "the Middle Way". In Buddhism any polar concept like theism or atheism is almost certainly wrong-- and is essentially a product of the enslavement of our minds by primitive linguistics.
Posted by: Andrew Kinsella | April 24, 2017 at 04:20 AM
I was inspired by your original post to follow your link: http://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-issues-for-2010/october/distorted-visions-of-buddhism-agnostic-and-atheist/
to the article that supposedly describes that which Alan Wallace "hates". I can see no sign of hate here at all. What I see is a very scholarly and clear eyed critique of Stephen Batchelor's work.
From my point of view Batchelor offers some useful points of view about Buddhist practice. They are useful because of their simplicity and their applicability to every day life. However Dr Wallace has a much more complete understanding of the Buddhist Canon, and when he observes that " Batchelor and Harris, on the other hand, present themselves as being sympathetic to Buddhism, but their visions of the nature of the Buddha’s teachings are false facsimiles of all those that have been handed down reverently from one generation to the next since the time of the Buddha. However benign their intentions, their writings may be regarded as “near enemies” of Buddhism." he is exactly right. There is no doubt that Wallace is being faithful to the Buddhist canon in both its Theravada and Mahayana incarnations, and there is no doubt that he is correct when he comments that Batchelor is pursuing ideas of his own that are not consistent with the broader understandings of Buddhism as has been preserved for the last 2,500 years.
However, I looked and I looked. I went over that post multiple times, but I could not find a single comment that suggested that Wallace"hates" Batchelor's interpretation.
Wallace disagrees with Batchelor, and he can bring an enormous amount of evidence to the debate to support that disagreement, but that is not hatred.
So from my point of view, to say that Dr Wallac3 "hates" BAtchelor's point of view is a serious misrepresentation.
The next point I would take issue with is the choice of Wikipedia as a suitable source of information on anything other than directions to the next town, or the taxonomy of butterflies. Wikipedia has become a serious battleground for the scientific materialists to stamp their view of reality on everything and everyone. The controversy surrounding Rupert Sheldrake and his book (and Ted Talk) "The Science Delusion" is a good case in point.
The hardline materialists have taken on a determined drive to control the Wikipedia biographies of many people they do not approve of (such as Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra, to name but 2). This issue is well described in the book by Craig Weiler called "Psi Wars:TED, WIkipedia, and the Battle for The Internet".
Dig down a little and you will find that on any topic that is at all controversial the editing wars at Wikipedia will be won by the most determined and the most obsessive, NOT by those who actually have truth on their side. The behaviour of zealots on Wikipedia, who use multiple false accounts (sockpuppets) and keep on chipping away until they have worn out all opposition, is scandalous. Wikipedia is no longer a reliable source for anything except the most mundane and uncontroversial of facts.
Now you comment about Wallace's calling materialism a "dogma", as though that were a problem. How is it not a dogma-- every bit as dogmatic as belief in the Virgin Birth? This is a subject that has been approached many times by many mature thinkers, but it is hard to escape the idea that materialism is a "first principals doctrine" that lays the groundwork for an entire science. There is actually nothing to support materialism, but the structure of scientific materialism is based on the a priori assumption that nothing but the material exists. However- that is all it is- an a priori assumption, one that is utterly unprovable.
Regarding reincarnation-- I have no proof that it occurs. Nobody in Buddhism can give a clear cut description of just what it is that is reincarnated.
I initially chose Buddhism for a number of reasons, one of which was belief that if I acted as though I believed in re-incarnation, that would force me to think harder about the true virtue and benefit of the choices I made, and at worst it might produce greater happiness in this life as I learned to moderate my behaviour with a view to the greater good of the whole (rough equivalent - karma [cause and effect] and compassion[recognising the interconnectedness and "experiential" identity of all beings- such that "what hurts you, hurts me"]). Overall that works (though some of the lessons I have learned on this path have been very painful). However, as I have been drawn deeper in to the path, I find that virtually all serious practitioners except those of non Asian background, literally believe in reincarnation- even though they often debate just what it is that is reincarnated. A small point here- within the reincarnation model- our personality is a combination of the .
So, I defer to their opinion, and as I settle deeper in, I defer to the evidence that is presented to me as the most convincing I have so far found .I'm not asking anyone else to. All I am suggesting is that it would be a bad experience to wake up in the bardo and realise that your views of life, and its extinction with the body, were horribly wrong.
The question of what it is that is reincarnated is another curly one- Buddhism speaks of "coarse mind" (our daily experience), "subtle mind "(that which is re-incarnated) and "very subtle mind" or rigpa--- pure awareness.
To put it roughly (the best I can do- as I am lagging with my homework) subtle mind is "the repository of our virtues" and when that combines with a new body it creates a new personality- which later changes as it experiences reality. So this is the catch to the reincarnation view- YOU are the combination of your subtle mind + your body. Once your body is dead-- YOU are dead.
So we come to these ideas with our Western preconceptions and really we don't have a clue of what it is that we are opposing when we object to reincarnation. "Thought leaders" like Harris and Dawkins are precocious children- but they need to read past chapter one before commenting.
As for Alan Wallace "hating " anything---give me a break -- he's just not that kind of guy.
Posted by: Andrew Kinsella | April 24, 2017 at 08:44 AM
I would add that Stephen Batchelor's kind of very stark "Buddhism without beliefs" has its place. He makes some wonderful points about Buddhist practice, and has helped me to see things that I would have otherwise have struggled with. He is clearly well grounded in the dharma and has a good grasp on the key issues.
However "Buddhism without beliefs" is a kind of two edged sword.
Not only does that model not believe in reincarnation, it does not disbelieve in reincarnation. To disbelieve in reincarnation is actually to adhere to the belief that reincarnation does not happen.
This understanding of what it really means "to be Buddhist without beliefs" is getting close to what is meant by "the middle way".
Now Western interviewers of an atheistic persuasion may well interview Batchelor in such a way that it appears that he is endorsing the atheistic point of view- ie his expressed opinion will arise in dependence upon the questions thrown at him by his interviewer.
I will have to go back to his books to cross reference this-- as I suspect that everybody may have misunderstood him.
Posted by: Andrew Kinsella | April 24, 2017 at 09:01 AM
Three Truths which say the Same
There is no God
Everything is God
You are God
You are just a temporal phenomenon that God wants to live through to produce Love
Ever more Love
She is a giant LOve Accumulator via Transformation
Posted by: 777 | April 25, 2017 at 12:44 AM