There is nonetheless a long and clearly discernible history of Buddhist institutions and the doctrines that they perpetuated. Institutions in general often become ends in themselves and wind up betraying the values they originally sought to protect. This inevitable risk stems from a tragic bind: if we do not institute valuable teachings, we risk losing them to the oblivion of the past. Institutions preserve the practices of wisdom, liberation, and awakening against the dissipating force of time. In so doing, however, the institution regards its own survival as paramount and hence favors its gatekeepers and administrators over its founding values. Institutions are always in danger of killing what they are charged with keeping alive.
Creative pushback, critical reevaluation, and ongoing reimagination within new historical and cultural contexts are necessary for each generation to revitalize what institutions otherwise threaten. The history of “Buddhism” is full of such rebirths. This was not restricted to its established institutional trajectories (for example, India as the birthplace of both the traditional form of Theravada and the upstart practices collected under the broad umbrella of Mahayana). This also happened as it took root in new soils: for example, in Himalayan cultures (Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim), as well as China, Korea, and Japan, and more recently, Europe and the Americas. All of these cultures also struggle with institutional obstinacy.
In 1997, Stephen Batchelor entered this fray with his hugely successful breakout book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which he later followed with influential works like Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime (2000) and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (2010). Secular Buddhism continues along the provocative path that he developed with these and other works.
Batchelor’s relationship to these institutions is not exclusively academic. In the 1970s he traveled to the Tibetan Kingdom in Exile, Dharamsala, and was ordained a monk. During the following decade he also went to Korea and trained at Songgwangsa Monastery in the Seon tradition (better known by its Chinese and Japanese names, Chan and Zen, respectively). As the Dharma began to take root in new soils, however, Batchelor grappled with what this might look like.
Part of his personal practice now includes art, specifically collage, and he credits this “aesthetics of emptiness” with stimulating his imagination enough to give rise to his breakthrough work, Buddhism Without Beliefs. His new book not only continues his ongoing reimagination of “Buddhism,” but also is itself a kind of collage, collecting and juxtaposing previously published works and a previously unpublished piece along with a new introduction and conclusion. The resulting assemblage comes together to shed further light on his renegotiation of “Buddhism.”
What Batchelor calls “secular Buddhism” or “Buddhism 2.0” is a delicate balancing act. There is no essential and unitary Buddhism: “Buddhism has become irrevocably plural.” As it enters new soils, negotiating its traditions requires subtlety and delicacy. Batchelor’s reimagination is Janus-faced, simultaneously looking backward and forward. On the one hand, if it loses sight of the past, it risks losing the capacity of “Buddhism” to challenge and transform contemporary culture; if it is too quickly and casually assimilated, it loses its teeth, falling prey to New Age obfuscation. On the other hand, if it does not look forward, the Dharma becomes confused with the cultural and metaphysical beliefs and strategies of long-gone ages. Not only does one feel obligated to hold beliefs that would not stand up to philosophical and scientific scrutiny, but “Buddhism” also remains reactionary, unable to address the personal, cultural, political, and ecological challenges of the contemporary age: “Buddhists are being challenged to maintain the rigor and depth of their traditions while at the same time to function both caringly and critically in a modern society.”
This Janus-faced stance is a new manifestation of the Buddhist Middle Way, negotiating what remains powerful, even revolutionary, in the tradition, while creatively transforming it to resonate not only in new cultural soil, but also to be able to respond to contemporary exigencies. This is nothing new:
Historically, Buddhism has always had to find ways of responding effectively to the danger of becoming too acculturated, of becoming too absorbed into the assumptions of the host culture. Certainly such a danger exists here in the West: Buddhism might, for example, tend to become a kind of souped-up psychotherapy. But there’s the equal danger of Buddhism holding on too fiercely to its Asian identity and remaining a marginal interest. Somehow we have to find a middle way between these two poles, and this challenge is not going to be worked out by academics or Buddhist scholars; it’s a challenge that each of us is asked to meet in our own practice from day to day.
Batchelor therefore advocates a “dialogical relation with tradition” that avoids a reactionary obedience to the letter of the law: “To insist upon preserving traditional institutions irrespective of circumstances would be to indulge in a dinosaur mentality.” Indeed, this new dialogue will likely not call for cosmetic changes but rather “require some radical surgery if it is to get to grips with modernity.” This is no easy task, and Batchelor is careful not to overestimate the force of his own contributions. If history is a guide, it will take “several generations” for Buddhist culture to take root in new soil.
Batchelor also proposes that we reimagine a secular Buddhism Without Beliefs. He seeks to loosen the grip of mandatory doctrines that confuse Buddhist practice with adherence to often archaic and culturally remote metaphysical positions. The latter tend to reflect the power of institutional interests: “Whenever a religion becomes an instrument of state power, thereby further enhancing the authority of its priests, it becomes even more difficult to challenge its dogmas, particularly if they become enshrined in law.”
Rather than pin the fate and force of Buddhist practice on the mandatory embrace of historically and culturally specific beliefs and opposing them in a death struggle to contemporary scientific and philosophical thinking, Batchelor proposes a secular overhaul. He understands secular in “three overlapping senses”: 1) he contrasts it with what we familiarly think of as “religious”; 2) he remains faithful to the word’s etymology in the Latin saeculum, “this age,” emphasizing the now and here of contemporary practice, rather than otherworldly hopes and investments; and 3) he divests Buddhism’s religious institutions of their traditional control and authority. What “would a nonreligious, this-worldly, secularized Buddhism look like”?
Secular Buddhism demands systemic overhaul. We are called to “rewrite the operating system itself, resulting in what we could call ‘Buddhism 2.0.’” Otherwise its appeal is limited to “those who are willing to embrace the worldview of ancient India.” The immense historical, cultural, and philosophical variance in “Buddhism” indicates that this is an ancient problem (and opportunity), as its practitioners both struggled with its institutionalization and reimagined its practices in new cultural and historical contexts. In the Lotus Sutra, for example, we learn that while the Dharma rain may fall equally on all things, each thing receives it in accordance with its capacity. The rock and the porous earth may receive the same rain, but the rock has no capacity for drainage. This is true not only for individual capacities, but also for historical and cultural periods. Each receives what it can in the best way that it can.
Batchelor’s “Buddhism 2.0” is not a religion in the traditional sense. It is comprised of therapeutic techniques and practices of ethical self-cultivation and, as such, is “closer in spirit and style to the Hellenistic philosophies of Skepticism, Epicureanism, or Stoicism than to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.” It cannot promise one the heavens, but it “enables one to take ethical choices that are not conditioned by habitual reactive patterns of greed, hatred, and self-centeredness.”
Secular Buddhism is also rational and pragmatic. Batchelor continues to value the philosophical training he received as a monk and, quite rightly in my view, warns against the “anti-intellectual, romantic bias of many students of Buddhism.” Although rationality is not a sufficient condition for a healthy practice, it is a necessary one. The practice of Buddhism should not be confused with the study of Buddhism any more than actual medicine should be confused with the idea of medicine. It does not follow, however, that an appreciation of Buddhism’s rigorous philosophical heritage harms practice or that the idea of medicine is irrelevant to producing or even recognizing actual medicine. Scholarly acumen and philosophical discipline complement practice, making for what Batchelor calls “study-practice.”
Nonetheless, the mere study of Buddhism risks confusing its liberatory practice with needing to embrace certain beliefs. Rather than emphasizing Buddhist teachings as metaphysical truths that command intellectual assent, Batchelor argues for a pragmatic approach. It is not that I first know something to be true and then act accordingly, but rather that I experience this practice as working, as in practice liberating me from a reactive stance to pain. This deemphasizes the belief-oriented emphasis on “truth,” which he regards as “one of the key indicators of how the dharma was gradually transformed from a liberative praxis of awakening into the religious belief system called Buddhism.” Batchelor imagines a transition “from a belief-driven Buddhism (version 1.0) to a praxis-based Buddhism (version 2.0).”
The historical Buddha was not a monger of grand metaphysical truths but rather a “situationalist,” attempting to respond, now and here, to problems as they appeared. He sought, first and foremost, not to understand the world — that is, to promulgate universal and eternal truths about it — but rather to be “therapeutic and pragmatic,” proffering not dogmas but rather “medicine.”
Batchelor’s Buddha is also not interested in grand ecstasies: “Enlightenment is not a transcendental mystical rapture but an ethical experience that reveals the nature of the existential dilemma and the way to its resolution.” Practice is a “complex sequence of interrelated achievements” related to the problem of dukkha (suffering), its “arising,” the nonreactivity that contributes to its ceasing, and the practice of the eightfold path. It is a “gestalt” switch that no longer sees these as the canonical four noble “truths,” but rather as the four noble “tasks.” He summarizes these four pragmatic tasks as ELSA: “Embrace, Let go, Stop, Act.” Such a practice is not a linear progression from one task to another. It is rather a “positive feedback loop that is itself the goal.” This loop clarifies the mind and opens the heart as we grow to “trust” a practice grounded in values “that are not driven by the imperatives of craving.” It is not that we no longer suffer, but rather that our reactivity to the reality of suffering softens. This neither denies the reality of pain nor does it imagine that it can comfort us by explaining it. It enables us to be better able to maximize our embrace of life without fundamentally understanding the nature of what we are embracing: “By saying ‘yes’ to birth, sickness, aging, and death, you open your heart and mind to the sheer mystery of being here at all.”
Finally, secular Buddhism is to know little but to imagine much. Given that Batchelor’s Buddhism 2.0 is pragmatic and therapeutic, and not fundamentally concerned with grand metaphysical and religious problems, it is not surprising that he is agnostic about these kinds of claims in traditional forms of Buddhism. He actively practices agnosticism about issues like reincarnation. More importantly, he does not regard it as a sink-or-swim issue for Buddhism 2.0. Nor does he believe that monasticism is still “central to the Buddhist sangha” (community). This is not to argue against monasticism. For those inclined and able to take up this kind of life, it can be transformative. Batchelor opposes the monopoly of monasticism on Buddhism in favor of exploring new constellations of practice community.
An active practice of agnosticism is another “good Buddhist middle way,” in which one acknowledges “in all honesty that one does not know.” It is not, however, a mere confession of the limits of knowing; it is a “deep agnosticism” or “deep not-knowing,” which also opens one to the “sheer mystery of things.”
As agnosticism loosens the grip of the institutional control of Buddhism, it opens practice not only to the profundity of not knowing, but also to the power of the imagination. Institutions preserve their power and interests “by controlling the imagination,” restricting Buddhism to its past forms. Practice is grounded in the tradition, but it also looks forward and attempts to create skillful ways to address contemporary concerns: “The imagination is the bridge between contemplative experience and the anguish of the world. By valuing imagination, we value the capacity of each person, each community, to imagine and create themselves anew.”
As “Buddhism” seeks to establish roots in new cultural and historical soils, it will have to study and reflect on the vast repositories of learning that its institutions have preserved. It will also have to imagine new worlds, perhaps this time around with greater attention paid to women, to all members of our species, to all of the sentient beings with whom we share our being on this increasingly besieged earth, and to our political institutions so that they aspire to provide ecological and economic justice to all sentient beings: “Great art and great dharma both give rise to something that has never quite been imagined before.”
Jason M. Wirth is professor of philosophy at Seattle University and an ordained Sōtō Zen priest.