BG 175: The Buddhist Atheist

Episode Description:

Secular Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor joins us to explore some of the ideas presented in his newest book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. We start off by examining the two Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth, using the original teachings of the Buddha, especially the “imponderables” as a touchstone for the conversation. Stephen’s basic claim being that the belief in rebirth doesn’t have sufficient evidence behind it, and it actually takes away from the core practices and teachings of the Buddha. We conclude the interview by exploring the difference between agnosticism and atheism, which Stephen claims can be integrated together into what he calls an “ironic atheism.”

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Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn and I’m joined today by a very special guest, Stephen Batchelor. Stephen, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today and to speak with us. I really appreciate it.

Stephen: It’s a great pleasure to be here.

Vince: And many people have heard your name in the Buddhist world. You’re a contemporary Buddhist teacher, writer, you’re a former Tibetan monk, and then you’re also a monk in the, is it the Korean Zen tradition?

Stephen: That’s right, yes.

Vince: So you spend a lot of time practicing and a lot of time studying. And then in recent years you’ve started writing a lot on this topic of Buddhist agnosticism or Buddhist atheism. And one of your first books, which I read back in college, was Buddhism Without Beliefs. And then, most recently you’ve written a book kind of following up on that called Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

Those are two of your books and you’ve written others as well but we wanted to kind of explore some of the material and content from your recent book, because it’s pretty interesting. And I know you’ve gotten both a lot of criticism, and also a lot of praise, for some of the stuff that you’ve been teaching and writing about, and I know a lot of that is related to the way that you look at karma and rebirth, two of the central Buddhist doctrines in the Buddhist tradition—you hear about them a lot. And you’ve approached them rather differently than traditionally. So I was wondering if you could share how you’re approaching these teachings and then how that differs from more traditional approaches.

Stephen: Yes, I’ve noticed how many Buddhists, of all traditions, use the words karma and rebirth as though they refer to one thing; as though if you dispensed with the idea of rebirth, then somehow karma too would also have to be thrown out the window. Now, I find that a little bit odd, frankly, and I certainly have difficulty with the traditional way which Buddhists understand the doctrine of rebirth or reincarnation. It’s the same word in Pali. And what this boils down to is that after physical death some part of you, Vince or Stephen, will continue into another life. Now, again, this is not spoken of in some crude way that literally Vince or Stephen will get reborn, but some element of our consciousness, or something like that, will escape the breakdown of the physical body and find its way into another world or some other means of being born in another realm.

Now, I really just do not understand what that could mean; it simply does not make sense to me. It’s not coherent, and it seems to rest upon our adopting certain metaphysical views, namely that there is some part of our being that is separate, by nature, from the physical body that will continue into another life. And both in terms of what we currently understand through the natural sciences, also in terms of a whole range of philosophical and psychological problems I have with the idea, it’s a doctrine that for many years now I’ve really just put to one side and not really considered to be central to what either the Buddha taught, or how I myself practice the dharma.

Now karma is another matter all together. I find it quite unproblematic to state that when I die, the effects of my actions will continue in the world. If I have a heart attack now, and drop dead, that doesn’t mean that my books or things I’ve said or done, to other people, through my words, through my deeds, will no longer continue to have an effect. They will. I think this is fairly self evident. So the only difference then, in my view, is that I don’t believe it’s necessary for some subtle bit of me to carry over into another life to experience the fruits of my own acts, but rather I simply see that after our death we have an enormous responsibility to ensure that the world we leave for others, be they our own children, be they our students, or so on, anybody, whoever, man, woman, animal. So I have no difficulty with the idea that after death my actions will continue to bear fruit. The only difference is that unlike some Buddhists, I don’t feel any need to be around when they mature.

And I feel that the important point of the doctrine of rebirth in any case is to give a kind of vehicle for the continuity of our moral acts to continue to bear fruit in the future. I think we can dispense with the vehicle and simply recognize that everything we do in this life will have consequences both now and after we are no longer here. And I think both views are equally potent in establishing a sense of moral responsibility, which I feel is really the main point.

Vince: You mentioned there that you didn’t feel like these doctrines weren’t necessarily central to the original Buddhist teachings and I know part of your book is to go back and sort of look at some of the original teachings and to see what’s common among some of the different sutras. I was wondering if you could say a little about your process there and what you discovered.

Stephen: Well this is a long process and it’s still very much ongoing. My journey through Buddhism started with being a Tibetan Buddhist monk in India around the Dalai Lama where I learned Tibetan, translated Tibetan texts, worked closely with Tibetan lamas for some years and then become a Zen monk for about four more years in South Korea. But since I just wrote, in 1985, I’ve been particularly interested in trying to recover, not only a sense of who this man the Buddha was, but also what was it in his teaching that really stood out that really made people say, “Wow, we’ve got to remember this.” This is something that has a greater value than just what it might achieve in 5th century BC India. This is speaking in a very universal language to human beings. So the more that I read through the Pali texts and the more that I travel through India on pilgrimage, the more these different aspects of the early Buddhist teaching and the Buddha’s life started slowly to come into focus.

Now, one of the things that I think is central to the Buddha’s teaching is that he is extremely suspicious of metaphysics and there are of course these famous questions that he refused to answer: Does the universe have a beginning? Does it have an end? Is it finite? Is it infinite? Are mind and body the same or are mind and body two separate things? And then the last four: Does the Tathagata exist after death or does he not exist after death? Now this latter one, I think, is being tampered with slightly. I think it’s almost certainly the case that what the Buddha meant was “Does one continue after death or does one not continue to exist after death?” Tathagata was simply being the way he referred to himself. So in other words, it just means one.

Now I think if you put those unanswered questions together, you’d get a picture of what, even today, remained as the big questions of life and death, and they’re just as unanswered now, by science, as they were at the Buddha’s time. But in any case, the Buddha wasn’t interested in rejecting these ideas because they were somehow wrong. But he was concerned with people getting involved with that kind of speculation because it would lead one away from the actual practice of the path. The Buddha compares his teaching to a medicine. He compares himself to a doctor. He compares the sangha to a group of people who support you in your recovery. Now, on a number of occasions, that he says as long as you are preoccupied with these big metaphysical questions, you won’t be attending sufficiently to the real task at hand, which is the question of suffering. Not just your own suffering, the suffering of others, the suffering of the world. And the Buddha’s teaching is, some would think that, has to be tested in terms of its therapeutic effectiveness. Not to be tested in terms as to whether it is an accurate description of reality or not.

I honestly don’t think the Buddha was interested in the nature of reality. The Buddha was interested in understanding suffering. In opening one’s heart and one’s mind to the suffering of the world. And then learning to be with that and to respond to that in a way that’s not driven by the habits of attachment and fear and hatred and so on. But responding to the condition of our world in a way that’s unconditioned by hatred, unconditioned by greed, unconditioned by confusion. Which leads us into a more enlightened way of living in the world today. And that he calls the eightfold path. So, my sense is that, at least on the basis of those early canonical passages, we have a sense of the Buddha as someone who is very much concerned with how we optimize the quality of our life here and now. That he certainly spoke of things like nirvana, and what that challenges us to, is really, to see whether it’s possible in our own practice, to bring to a stop those drives and instincts and habits that keep propelling us into forms of speech and forms of action that, in the end, rebound upon us, do not get us anywhere, and generally, cause both ourselves and others a great deal of grief. In other words, the heart of the practice lies with how we are living from moment to moment in the actual world, with what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, are the people, language, our own inner psychology, and the great challenges that face the human race as a whole. How do we deal with those from a perspective that is not dictated to by our selfishness and our attachment and our anger?

Vince: Nice. Thank you. And I know this question is maybe a little strange given what you just said, but you write about, in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, that the notion of rebirth has, as it’s starting assumption, the duality between mind and matter, and that was one of the four imponderables you just mentioned.

Stephen: Well, that’s absolutely right, I should have mentioned that. I find it very strange that the Buddha quite explicitly says that one should not get drawn into speculations as to whether mind and body are the same or different. And yet, the history of Buddhism shows us very unambiguously that that’s exactly what pretty much every Buddhist tradition has gone and done—nearly all of them (there are, I think, some exceptions in Theravada Buddhism). But, the basic idea is that for there to be rebirth, there must be something that does not cease to exist with the death of the physical body. And I find it very difficult to understand how you can propose a theory of rebirth without adopting a mind-body dualism.

And that dualism, I think, is quite at odds with what the Buddha had in mind. And I think it is also very difficult to square with how we actually understand the nature of the world in which we live. I don’t think there are two separate things, one material and one spiritual, that in some weird way, sort of co-exist. I feel that whatever the stuff of the universe is, it is of one nature. And I think probably nowadays you’d have to reject both the word matter and the word mind as being adequate, except perhaps sort of symbolically, to describe what, in fact, is this extraordinary stuff that has come into being that we call life.

Vince: Nice. And have you found that there are any other thinkers or practitioners who have maybe a better way of approaching this whole paradox?

Stephen: Well, when I wrote Buddhism Without Beliefs and suggested that one might adopt an agnostic position to rebirth, I was very surprised by the response I got. A lot of people, and this continues 13 years later, continue to write to me and say, “Thank you very much for writing that book; it really speaks to me as a practitioner; it makes Buddhism intelligible to me.” But I got a lot of flak from people who found that even to adopt an agnostic position, in other words, to say, “I really don’t know, maybe there is rebirth, and maybe not.” Even an agnostic position was certainly one step too far.

In other words, there appears, in the Buddhist community, to be a fault line that demarcates two quite different camps. One, of what one might call the conservatives or the traditionalists who can’t quite imagine how you could have Buddhism without the doctrine of rebirth. And another camp, which would include, obviously, people like myself, who I would maybe portray as more liberal, more secular in orientation, who have exactly the opposite problem—mainly, they cannot conceive of a Buddhist practice or at least an intelligible Buddhist practice, having to incorporate what looks to them, but looks to me, like an antiquated, pre-modern belief.

So, I’ve certainly got into trouble with Buddhists who’d reject even agnosticism about rebirth, but I feel that my writing, on the other hand, just opened up the door to Buddhism for many people who were either struggling with it and thinking it wasn’t quite for them or who’d simply been put off by the dogmatism that, unfortunately, one sometimes comes across in Buddhist circles. And they found that my writings somehow gave them permission to think in some other ways without abandoning their commitment to the Dharma, their commitment to the Three Jewels, their commitment to their life as a Buddhist. And I’m glad that’s been something I’ve been able to do.

Vince: Nice, thank you. And kind of connected to this I remember reading in, Buddhism Without Beliefs you actually wrote, quote, “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. For to deny either God or meaning is simply the antithesis of affirming them. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know, and it confronts the enormity of been born instead of reaching for the consolation of belief. It strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here—either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.”

I found that really interesting, and then also a little confusing when I picked up the title of your newest book and saw that it was a Buddhist Atheist, and I wondered if your position had changed since then from being a Buddhist agnostic or how if it hasn’t your reconciling that with your thinking on atheism as being harmful in your earlier writings?

Stephen: Well that’s a very good quote you singled out there Vince, and this often happens to one as a writer, one gets “hoisted by one’s own petard” I think is the expression. Well you see, although this might seem a bit odd, I don’t actually find that the two positions are in contradiction. I think an agnostic position is a very very healthy one to hold, and I think for myself agnosticism was like finding an enormous breathing space out of the constrictions of doctrine and dogma basically, that I was free now to admit what I didn’t know and to say, “I just don’t know,” without having to lock onto any particular view. And I found that very liberating and I continue to find that liberating, and in certain areas of my practice, particularly meditation and also philosophically. I have to have the humility that, fundamentally, no human being knows the answer to these great questions. I think we need to accept that as a given—that in a way all believers are agnostic. In other words, if I say, “I believe in the existence of God,” that’s not saying that I know that God exists. That, curiously, all belief is agnostic. In other words, we adopt these ideas, and yet we need to have the humility to recognize that although we believe in them, we don’t actually know. Now that, unfortunately, is one of the weaknesses of agnosticism because it is really, when it comes down to it, just a rather honest way of acknowledging the limitations of human knowledge.

So in the new book when I use the word atheist, I am in a way moving beyond an agnostic position. I am saying that, OK, deep down I do not know whether there is, let’s say reincarnation, but to the extent to which I can say anything, to the extent to which we understand, now-a-days, the human body, the nervous system, the brain, the way the organism operates within the context of its environment, the fact that we have such an extraordinary paucity of any hard evidence that people have ever been reborn, let alone live to tell the tale, then I think it’s extremely unlikely that rebirth is going to happen. So unlikely, in fact, that it’s probably quite a good idea just to put that idea just out of circulation all together. In other words to say, “Frankly, I don’t believe there is rebirth.” Notice I’ve used the word believe. I don’t believe—I am not saying I don’t know, but I don’t believe there is rebirth. So when I say I don’t believe there is rebirth that is not actually denying the more basic point of agnosticism, which is I don’t really know whether there is really rebirth or not, but I don’t believe there is. That’s the shift that I have made I suppose.

You see the other problem with agnosticism is that it’s very open-minded, it’s very good for giving a basis for inquiry. But it doesn’t give us much of a basis for making a firm, intellectual commitment or stand on a particular issue. Everything is: Well, I just don’t know. I do think that, although there are many things we do not know, we have sufficient evidence to be able to say, well, I cannot believe this, I cannot believe that. I cannot believe that there is a creator God who exists independently of the universe somehow, who has brought it into being and is guiding it towards its redemption. I cannot believe that there is a little bit in me somewhere that will sneak out of my body when I die and get reborn in another womb. I simply cannot believe those things.

And I feel it’s important if Buddhism is to evolve into a secular tradition that is able to speak to the kind of culture we live in today, that is able to address issues in our human life that extend far beyond the interest of mere Buddhists. I do feel that a lot of this baggage has not just to be suspended but actually really locked away, put aside, and no longer really worried much about at all.

And I suppose recently one of the big gripes I have with the whole rebirth business is that in some ways it prevents us from a wholehearted commitment to addressing the suffering of this world. I find it strange that many Buddhist seem to think that this world, and what happens in the course of this short life is somehow not as significant or as important as the many lifetimes that will follow after this one and lead us eventually to hopefully Buddhahood or nirvana. Because we really just don’t know that. The only thing we know for sure is that there is life on this planet and it suffers. Now if you believe in rebirth, even if there were a nuclear explosion, even if because of our over-industrialization we end up polluting the planet to the point where life is no longer feasible upon it, from a rebirth believer’s point of view, that wouldn’t really matter. Of course such a person, if they were Buddhist, would have great compassion for that suffering, and so forth and so on, but at some level it actually doesn’t matter that much because after death, after the mass extinction of life on Earth, every single being, every single sentient being who dies in that extinction will get reborn according to their karma somewhere else and things will just pickup and carry on as before. Now to me that is a rather a dangerous opt-out clause from our great challenge as human beings to address some of the enormous problems and sufferings that are occurring in our world today and which are very likely to have considerable impact on future generations.

Now the advantage of such a view is that you end up in a win-win situation. If I dedicate my life wholeheartedly and fully to alleviating the suffering of this world with no thought whatsoever of any afterlife, or any reward, then when I do die, and if there is another life, I can think of no better way of having prepared for it. And if there is not another life, then I have done whatever I’ve been humanly possible to do, here and now. And that’s the kind of position I would have now. So it’s both agnostic and atheistic. I don’t think the terms are contradictory .

And if you read the chapter on atheism, I call it ironic atheism. I think the Buddha was not a devout atheist. The Buddha simply did not have any time for the very concept or the language of God, and he dismissed it, really, as just yet another example of how human beings can dream up of all sorts of things, and he put it to one side. So Buddhism is atheistic in the sense that it simply it doesn’t have recourse to God language, but it’s not atheistic in the sense that it has as a central doctrine the denial of God. So as long as we are careful about that and we don’t lapse into the kind of militant atheism which seems to be as much in revolt against God as fundamental believers are enthralled to God, then I think we can be atheist without being militant and that will help us, I hope, to treat the suffering of this world as the only thing of primary importance that the human being living a full conscious life needs to address.


Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor is a contemporary Buddhist teacher and writer, best known for his secular or agnostic approach to Buddhism. He considers Buddhism to be a constantly evolving culture of awakening rather than a religious system based on immutable dogmas and beliefs.