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Closet Buddhism - Elf M. Sternberg
Closet Buddhism
I have often felt a strong affinity for Buddha's own writings, if not those of many of his followers. The religiosity of much of modern Buddhism is off-putting, but not terribly so, and the imprint of tribalism on nominal "Buddhist" belief has led to religious wars that differ from the Irish Catholic/Protestant schism only in the cut and color of the participants' wardrobe.

And yet it's hard not to find something attractive in his aphorism on what morals and ethics one should adopt as "true,"
Never be satisfied with hearsay, tradition, legend, scripture, conjecture, rationalization, or the mere words of your teacher. When you know in yourself, "These things are blameless, praiseworthy, skillful, and adopting them leads to welfare and happiness," then you should practice them.

Still, there are a lot of suttas in Buddhism that, quite frankly, strike me as nonsense, and a lot of the Buddhists I know are rather silly folk, having adopted an awful lot of New Age practices that have little in common with Four Ennobling Truths, but the tie-dye is nifty. And meditation never hurt anyone.

Stephen Batchelor has written a very short little book called Buddhism without Belief in which he writes a lot of very sensible things about the way Buddhist religiosity gets in the way of Buddhist practice. His best example is that of the Four Ennobling Truths, which get turned into propositions of fact to be believed before one can proceed, that "Life is Suffering," "Suffering is caused by Desire," "To escape Suffering one must eliminate Desire," and "Having eliminated Desire, one must avoid returning to it," and so on. Batchelor's premise is that this is exactly what the Buddha never wanted, a religion. What Buddha wanted was a recommended course of action, to understand the source of a particular anguish, to let go of the source so it can be dealt with on its own, to realize a cessation of anguish, and to continue onward.

To me, that sounds exactly right. It's hard to do in many cases, and I can't imagine myself giving up some of the pleasures I enjoy even as the Buddha advises that my wanting and enjoying them is itself a source of anguish. But it sounds right without being a complete straitjacket approach (as I discussed last week regarding Montessori, Kubler-Ross, or as one correspondent pointed out, Maslow) or requiring that I buy into any whacked metaphysics.

Batchelor also wants Buddhism to give up its insistence on reincarnation, which he considers a drag on it inserted by the ur-Hinduism of Buddha's time. He writes a lot of nifty things, such as the conflict of the rebirth-meme with the traditional Buddhist notion that there is intrinsic "self" independent of its substrate, and he writes things that my brain automatically asterisks, such as "death is inevitable," to which my brain appends "(for now)."

But my brain came to a screeching halt when I read the following:
An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief. It strips away the views that conceal the mystery of being here-- either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.

I am sufficiently anguished by this paragraph that I feel compelled to respond. Batchelor has wedged himself firmly into the intellectual incoherency of a 19th-century fad that, today, has not only lost its original meaninglessness but has become a sort-of spiritual cop-out.

It surprises me that, having been so erudite about a 6th century BCE manuscript, he fails to recognize the absurdity of falling back on a 19th century neologism. Were there no agnostics prior to 1880, when Huxley coined the term? Of course there were, but they were called "atheists," and Huxley later stated clearly that he coined the term to obfuscate the fact that he was one. Agnosticism, at best, is an intellectual stance regarding knowledge-- it's a position about what one can know, not about what one believes-- but it discusses that knowledgeability in terms of an inaccessibility. If you can never know, why talk about it? It bugs me that people ascribe a quality to something they claim one can ascribe no qualities at all.

This is one of the things that always confuses me about "agnostics" like Batchelor. It doesn't matter what you say, really: I want to know how you act. If you act as if your actions have no consequences except in the here and now, then whatever "agnostic" knowledge you lay claim to is irrelevant: your belief is that the metaphysical is irrelevant to your actions.

In the end, though, Batchelor hasn't come up with anything new: he's made Buddha's description of the human condition palatable to a secular west and in doing so he's paralleled modern psychotherapy, which also hasn't come up with anything new. And the outcome of his "practice of Buddhism" is still an iffy proposition, to be accepted not after consideration but with blind belief, and if it doesn't work for you it's not because you're wired differently from him, but because you're just not trying.

Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful
Current Music: John Zorn, Chinatown

6 comments or Leave a comment
lisakit From: lisakit Date: June 9th, 2006 09:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think "blind faith" gets in the way of any spiritual path. It's one of the biggest problems I've had with being raised in the christian faith. I knew God before I knew christianity and I still don't think I'd believe in him if I hadn't seen him. Most christians (and even people of other religions) just don't get that and it makes them very nervous when you ask them to explain just *why* they believe.

understand the source of a particular anguish, to let go of the source so it can be dealt with on its own, to realize a cessation of anguish, and to continue onward. I really like this summation. Something to think about. Unlike you though, and as I've pointed out previously, I need some kind of structure to my worship, and yes it is worship because I *do* believe strongly in a supreme (and benign) being. The path I've found (after many years of recovering from christianity) works very well for me.

Regarding agnostics and atheists:
agnostic = without knowledge
atheist = without gods
I can sort of see what Batchelor is saying here in that there are many who take these views to such an extreme that the views become a religion in themselves. Yah, that would be counter to Buddah's teachings. You seem to be an agnostic and/or atheist in the way that my Grandpa was. Even though you feel you don't know, and likely can't know, you seem to be willing to consider the possibility and are willing to entertain any actual proof to the contrary (if such proof can be found). You're not "religiously" attached to your beliefs in this area. I don't think that's the kind of agnostic/atheist that Batchelor is talking about.

I agree that one's actions speak louder than one's words. There can be alot of christian bashing in our circles (and even to a lesser degree bashing of other religions), but I've known christians who believe in the underlying tennets (which are not unlike buddhism and many other religious tennets) and show this in their everyday lives. Frankly, it's when a person's actions seem to match their professed beliefs that I tend to trust them more.

Thank you for posting this.
From: rarkrarkrark Date: June 10th, 2006 07:34 am (UTC) (Link)
> I can't imagine myself giving up some of the pleasures I enjoy even as the
> Buddha advises that my wanting and enjoying them is itself a source of
> anguish.

Wanting them causes anguish. Specifically wanting and not having. Enjoying them does not cause anguish. Possibly the correct word to use is Coveting. Coveting causes anguish. Desire causes anguish. Attachment causes anguish. Having and enjoyment causes enjoyment :P One can enjoy without attachment. In fact, I'm convinced that the total lack of attachment that some groups encourage is attachment to the concept of lack of attachment and that it's absolutely the opposite of what the Buddha was trying to convey.

amberite2112 From: amberite2112 Date: June 14th, 2006 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)

"earthly desires equal enlightenment"

(Deleted comment)
elfs From: elfs Date: June 12th, 2006 04:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hi, Charles! Indeed, LTNS.
lexm From: lexm Date: June 17th, 2006 06:00 am (UTC) (Link)
In her book "When Things Fall Apart", Pema Chodron uses the term "nontheism"; and Wikipedia seems to agree that that term is a better match for the Buddha's teaching.

"If you can never know, why talk about it?" Um, 'cuz not talking about it doesn't lead to a book contract? I mean, "The Nothing Book" has already been done...


Oh, yeah, LTNS from me, too...
jezebelleinhell From: jezebelleinhell Date: October 15th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

did a google search...

Hi there,

Stephen Batchelor is doing a talk tonight entitled "Is Buddhism Atheism" in San Diego. I am going to attend and thought I'd look up the talk and see if there was any internet chatter on it. I found this entry in the listings. Seeing as I also (obviously) have an LJ I figured I'd pop over and say "Hi".

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