A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky?

An absolutely fascinating public debate took place recently between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt regarding the evolving nature of religion and religious truth in our time, and the debate contains many stimulating insights into the nature of modern Buddhism and the attempts of Buddhism to entrench itself in the West. The debate had great meaning and especial poignancy for me in the light of the traumatic experiences I and some of my dharma colleagues have been through recently, but it also gave me lots of clues about how to develop my dharma practice in the future and confirms me in my growing conviction that dharma practice has to be protected from the tendency of religious organisations, even Buddhist ones, to periodically become fossilised and over-rigid in their attempts to maintain doctrinal purity and hierarchical authority, destroying the creative tension of debate, even dissent, that is an essential part of keeping any tradition fresh, alive and dynamic. Better still, ways of practising dharma outside of any dependence or over-reliance upon an organisational or institutional structure may need to be developed and/or encouraged.

To give a flavour of the debate, here is some of what Stephen Batchelor said:

I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part. 

Later on Batchelor says:

I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh.

And to really put the cat amongst the pigeons, this question was put to Stephen Batchelor: “Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.”

To which Stephen Batchelor replied:

Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.

Now that makes you think, doesn’t it? But I do recommend reading  the transcript of the whole debate and Stephen Batchelor’s statement distributed before the debate itself. I promise you, it’s compelling stuff!



4 Comments on “A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky?”

  1. Brent says:

    I don’t think the Dharma can exist without lineages and sanghas and I think Buddhists who think otherwise have a hidden agenda. De-mythologized Dharma is just fine and is probably closer to what the Buddha actually taught; he rejected all religious dogma and superstition, yet there is room in the Dharma universe for all kinds of Dharma, not just this kind or that kind.

    • andydharma says:

      Thanks, Brent, for your comment, which raises some interesting issues, and judging by the great numbers of people who have looked at this post already, those issues are taken very seriously by many Buddhists in the West today. As I suspected, the debate between Batchelor and Cupitt is extremely relevant and contains much food for thought for many serious Dharma practitioners. Lineages and sanghas obviously help to sustain the transmission of Dharma over time, and Batchelor does pay homage during the debate to the value of traditions in this regard. Yes, we may need lineages and sanghas, but I think they can sometimes have hidden agendas of their own which obstruct or distort the transmission of Dharma, or sometimes mythologise Dharma to the point where what Buddha ‘really’ taught becomes very difficult to discern. Batchelor points out the difficulty of disciminating what is ‘original’ Dharma from what is superfluous mythology (although sometimes the mythology can be useful) and what is just the ‘commentary’ of a lineage or sangha that has either an overt or covert agenda. Batchelor has taken the approach of improving his discrimination of what is Buddha’s Dharma by deep study of as many of the original and earliest texts that he can find reliable translations for. It is only one approach, and not for everybody, but I think it helps to enrich the range of Dharmas available and, as you imply, Brent, there is always room for another presentation of the Dharma and that maybe should be welcomed rather than striving to find the ‘definitive’ Dharma and clinging to that to the exclusion of any other kind. That fits in with the modernist, or post-modernist thinking, of the West, which I would argue has influenced us all whether we are aware of that or not.

      • DharmaForum says:

        I find that other teachers, at times later than the Buddha, bring me more insight sometimes than the teaching of Buddha. This enrichment helps me to hold in my mind all the teachings of humanity in my quest to attain the ultimate, enlightenment.

  2. […] A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky? […]

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