Stephen Batchelor’s ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’ was hugely responsible for persuading me initially that Buddhism was worth investigating. So do I agree with his latest assertion that we need a new, secularised, non-sectarian version of Buddhism for the modern age? My suggestion in this post is that divesting the religion of its ‘supernatural’ connotations in order to make it more palatable to westerners is kind of missing the point…
Do we need a new, secularised, non-sectarian version of Buddhism? Recently I listened to the first of a series of talks on this issue. The speaker, Stephen Batchelor, states that in his opinion, “One of the things that somehow keeps Buddhism stuck in antiquity is its ongoing commitment to the cosmological and soteriological views of classical Indian thought.” In other words, the traditional Buddhist ideas of kamma, death and rebirth, devas and otherworldly realms are an unnecessary restriction on the modern-day seeker of enlightenment.
My initial reaction is, divesting the Buddhism of its ‘supernatural’ connotations in order to make it more ‘realistic’ and palatable to westerners is kind of missing the point – as practitioners we’re supposed to be training in order to let go our attachment to views about reality. Clearly Buddhism has and always will continue to evolve and we shouldn’t be attached to our traditions, but the religion isn’t and never was wholly compatible with a modern scientific outlook, and if we now start jettisoning the bits we feel uncomfortable with I wonder how different an approach that is from the New Age fad of selectively picking and mixing from a variety of incompatible spiritual systems? Isn’t the modernisation or secularisation of Buddhism just a different form of attachment?
My own faith or confidence in traditional lay Buddhism remains strong despite being unable as yet to prove or refute the teachings on kamma, rebirth and cosmology beyond all reasonable doubts. But do I really need to accept or reject the raison d’être (i.e. freedom from an endless cycle of death, rebirth and suffering) for a spiritual system that has arguably worked well enough for countless numbers of people over the last 2500 years? After all, isn’t the whole point to investigate the Dhamma for ourselves? Stephen Bachelor may not like the term, ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’, but nevertheless it might be an apt term for what he appears to be advocating, and if so I wonder why he and others who think like him continue to identify themselves as ‘Buddhist’.
Actually, it’s ironic that I should be thinking this given that Stephen Bachelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs,  was hugely responsible for persuading me initially that the religion was worth investigating. I now consider myself fortunate to be practicing with a modern Sangha that values the traditional wisdom and transmits it accordingly. But like I say, I’ve only listened to the first talk and this is just my initial reaction to the idea of a secular ‘Post-Buddhist’ movement. I’ve no entrenched view.
Stephen Batchelor & Joan Halifax, ‘After Buddhism (Part 1)’, 11 February 2013.
 Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc), 1998.