Batchelor correctly argues that for Buddhism to make sense and be useful, its religious/supernatural aspects need to be set aside.
So no karma extending over multiple lives, no reincarnation, no mythical entities inhabiting non-material realms of existence.
In this regard Batchelor agrees with Sam Harris. Both Batchelor and Harris have many years of experience with Buddhist meditation and teachings. So I've been enjoying listening to a lengthy discussion between Batchelor and Harris that is on Harris' Waking Up iPhone app that I subscribe to.
Today I heard an interesting dialogue about how they view enlightenment and the familiar Buddhist adage that life is suffering.
Because Batchelor and Harris largely agree on most things Buddhist'y, their exchange wasn't so much a debate, but an exchange of views, with each man trying to understand where the other was coming from, as the saying goes.
Harris is more into enlightenment as an end in itself, where that word basically means seeing through the illusion of a separate self or soul, and recognizing that everything we experience is an alteration of consciousness.
In his view, it is always possible to step back (a favorite Harris saying) and view an emotion, thought, or whatever as something that arises in consciousness, rather than a substantial entity -- thereby defusing the power of a disturbing or unproductive state of mind.
Batchelor agrees with the value of doing this, but prefers to speak about non-reactivity, as I noted in a blog post.
In his book "After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age," Bachelor has some interesting observations about nirvana. Prior to saying that nirvana can be understood in one of two ways, as either the ceasing of reactivity or as freedom and independence from reactivity, he gave this view of reactivity:
We tend to regard the appearance of such a fearful world as a projection of our mental state.
But this reading of the situation is based on the cultural habit of interpreting experience psychologically. No matter how much we tell ourselves that the fearfulness of the world is just a projection, such reassurance does not significantly alter either how the world appears to us or how we feel about it.
From the perspective of a dharma practitioner, the task of "letting go of what arises" entails releasing one's grip on the whole picture: angry-me-facing-hostile-situation.
Letting go is not simply a question of breathing deeply to calm my rattled mind; I need to cleanse the doors of my perception. This requires suspending the default habit of seeing the world as being hostile, desirable, or boring. One of the most effective ways of suspending that habit is to train yourself to comprehend the world as an infinitely suffering world.
Now, I don't claim to fully understand what Bachelor means.
However, I have at least an indistinct grasp of what he's getting at, and that's good enough for me. The way I see it, Bachelor doesn't view life as ever being free of suffering. But it is possible to lessen the impact of suffering.
Now, the differences between Harris and Batchelor in this regard are subtle. In large part they matter only to people like themselves -- so knowledgeable about Buddhist history, teachings, and writings, they can intelligently discuss the finer points of Buddhism.
That said, there was one area where I believe I understood Batchelor quite well, and agree with him to a greater extent than I agree with Harris.
Today I heard Batchelor say that individual enlightenment or ending suffering shouldn't be the final goal of a Buddhist practitioner. Instead, being a good ethical person should be. Thus our inner work should be viewed as a foundation for wise compassionate actions and relationships in our everyday life.
I see this as akin to a combination shot in pool, or billiards. You're striking a certain ball with the intention that it will hit another ball that's your primary interest.
Which isn't totally different from how Harris views things. He said that the more he can tone down or eliminate his worries, anxieties, fears, negative emotions, and such, the better his relationships with other people will be. Which makes perfect sense. It's much easier to be around someone loving and happy than someone angry and sad.
Thus what makes meditation important isn't only how it impacts how we experience the world. Equally important, if not more so, is how an inner realization affects our outer relationships.
If a spiritual practice isn't making us a better human being, it isn't serving a purpose.
This is clear when we consider how often supposedly enlightened or awakened people engage in bad behaviors. There's simply no excuse for devotees of these people to say things like, "It isn't possible to judge the behavior of an enlightened soul."
Sure it is. Are they honest, compassionate, loving, truthful, caring, generous, and so on? Are they acting like a normal good human being? If not, their so-called enlightenment or awakening is a fraud, bullshit.
I've got a bit more of the Harris-Batchelor discussion to listen to. If I hear anything worth sharing in another blog post, I'll be sure to do that.