After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

by Stephen Batchelor


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After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age by Stephen Batchelor

A renowned Buddhist teacher’s magnum opus, based on his fresh reading of the tradition’s earliest texts

Some twenty-five centuries after the Buddha started teaching, his message continues to inspire people across the globe, including those living in predominantly secular societies. What does it mean to adapt religious practices to secular contexts?
Stephen Batchelor, an internationally known author and teacher, is committed to a secularized version of the Buddha’s teachings. The time has come, he feels, to articulate a coherent ethical, contemplative, and philosophical vision of Buddhism for our age. After Buddhism, the culmination of four decades of study and practice in the Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada traditions, is his attempt to set the record straight about who the Buddha was and what he was trying to teach. Combining critical readings of the earliest canonical texts with narrative accounts of five members of the Buddha’s inner circle, Batchelor depicts the Buddha as a pragmatic ethicist rather than a dogmatic metaphysician. He envisions Buddhism as a constantly evolving culture of awakening whose long survival is due to its capacity to reinvent itself and interact creatively with each society it encounters.
This original and provocative book presents a new framework for understanding the remarkable spread of Buddhism in today’s globalized world. It also reminds us of what was so startling about the Buddha’s vision of human flourishing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300224344
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 319,493
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

An internationally known author, teacher, and scholar of Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor leads secular Buddhist retreats worldwide, is a founding member of the Bodhi College, and a contributing editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He lives in southwest France.

Read an Excerpt

After Buddhisni

Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

By Stephen Batchelor


Copyright © 2015 Stephen Batchelor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21622-6


After Buddhism

* * *

So, Bahiya, should you train yourself: "in the seen, there will be only the seen; in the heard, only the heard; in the sensed, only the sensed; in that of which I am conscious, only that of which I am conscious."

This is how you should train.



A well-known story recounts that Gotama — the Buddha — was once staying in Jeta's Grove, his main center near the city of Savatthi, capital of the kingdom of Kosala. Many priests, wanderers, and ascetics were living nearby. They are described as people "of various beliefs and opinions, who supported themselves by promoting their different views." The text enumerates the kinds of opinions they taught:

The world is eternal.
The world is not eternal.
The world is finite.
The world is not finite.
Body and soul are identical.
Body and soul are different.
The tathagata exists after death.
The tathagata does not exist after death.
The tathagata both exists and does not exist after death.
The tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.

They took these opinions seriously. "Only this is true," they would insist. "Every other view is false!" As a result, they fell into endless arguments, "wounding each other with verbal darts, saying 'The dharma is like this!' 'The dharma is not like that!'"

The Buddha commented that such people were blind. "They do not know what is of benefit and what is of harm," he explained. "They do not understand what is and what is not the dharma." He had no interest at all in their propositions. Unconcerned whether such views were true or false, he sought neither to affirm nor to reject them. "A proponent of the dharma," he once observed, "does not dispute with anyone in the world." Whenever a metaphysical claim of this kind was made, Gotama did not react by getting drawn in and taking sides. He remained keenly alert to the complexity of the whole picture without opting for one position over another.

Gotama relates a parable as a commentary on the quarreling priests and ascetics. He tells of a king in Savatthi who instructed his servants to gather together all the people of the city who had been blind from birth. He ordered an elephant to be brought before them, then led each blind person to the creature and had him or her touch a different part of the elephant's body. Some rubbed the ears, some felt the trunk, some put their arms around a leg, some stroked the side, and some pulled the tail. He asked: "Now tell me: what is an elephant?" Some said an elephant was "just like a storeroom," some said it was "just like a pillar," and others said it was "just like a broom." They argued — "An elephant is like this! An elephant is not like that!" — until a fight broke out, and they began beating each other with their fists.

The moral of this story is that the dharma cannot be reduced to a set of truth-claims, which will inevitably conflict with other truth-claims. Only by letting go of such views will one be able to understand how dharma practice is not about being "right" or "wrong."

It is notable that the last six of the ten listed views have to do with the possibility (or not) of life after death, which suggests that the topic was much debated. Although the Buddha may have presented his ideas in the context of multiple lifetimes, this oft-repeated passage implies that he did so for cultural and pragmatic reasons alone. "Of that which the wise (pandita) in the world agree upon as not existing," he said, "I too say that it does not exist. And of that which the wise in the world agree upon as existing, I too say that it exists." On such matters, Gotama is content to accept learned consensus. To have affirmed the view that the mind is different from the body and will be reborn after death in another body would have made him no different from those wanderers and ascetics he declared to be blind.

In contrast to those who base their behavior on metaphysical truth-claims, the practitioner of the dharma as Gotama envisioned it takes into account the totality of each situation and responds in accordance with the principles, perspective, and values of the dharma. Since each situation in life is unique, it is impossible to predict in advance exactly how such a person will respond. Instead of asking "What is the 'right' or 'wrong' thing to do?" the practitioner asks, "What is the wisest and most compassionate thing to do?" Many centuries after the Buddha, the Chinese Chan (Zen) patriarch Yunmen (c. 860–949) was asked: "What are the teachings of an entire lifetime?" Yunmen replied: "An appropriate statement." For Yunmen, what counts is whether your words and deeds are an appropriate response to the situation at hand, not whether they accord with an abstract truth.

The dharma is the whole elephant. It is comparable to a complex living organism, each part of which plays a role in animating the mysterious creature that breathes, eats, walks, and sleeps. Dharma practice exposes the limits of human thought and language when we are confronted with the puzzle of being here at all. All people, whether devoutly religious or avowedly secular, share this sense of unknowing, wonder, and perplexity. That is where we all begin.


As an impressionable nineteen-year-old, I was inducted into an intact medieval Buddhist world that had had little contact with modernity. My Tibetan teachers had been exiled from their homeland for thirteen years and were confident that it would not be long before they returned. I soon found myself involved in far more than a study of the doctrines and practices of Buddhism. I became immersed in a refined culture of awakening, embodied by men and women who had been raised and educated in a world utterly different from the one I knew. My formative years, which would otherwise have been spent in a university in Britain, involved gaining intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the ways these people thought, spoke, and acted. I did not judge them with the detachment of an outside observer. I came to see myself as part of their world. I went native.

Total immersion in a living Buddhist culture allowed me to acquire an intuitive familiarity with a complex worldview worked out and articulated over many centuries. This familiarity provided me with the framework, concepts, and terminology needed to rethink the dharma. I believe that the arguments presented in this book remain entirely true to the logic of the dharma. I seek to torque that logic to bring the dharma into closer alignment with the needs and concerns of people living in modernity. In attempting to come up with a coherent and consistent account of Buddhist thought and practice, my aim is to produce what in Christianity would be called a systematic theology. I realize that many Buddhists may find some of what I say heretical. I can sympathize with them — for there is a part of me that also experiences a tremor of unease when I read what I have written.

Throughout my forty years of involvement in the dharma, I have spent a great deal of time pondering and agonizing over Buddhist concepts in order to formulate an understanding of the dharma that is consistent with both core Buddhist teaching and the worldview of modernity. During these years the dharma has slowly broken out of the ghetto of "Oriental religion" and penetrated into the mainstream of contemporary culture. Buddhist imagery, concepts, and terms now crop up in the most unlikely settings: in tattoos and Hollywood movies, in literary novels and slick advertising campaigns. The practice of mindfulness, now widely adopted in health care, business, education, and other fields, has grown from a minority interest among dharma students into a global movement that draws people from all walks of life, most of whom have little interest in the traditional teachings or institutions of Buddhism. What I seek to provide in this book is a philosophical, ethical, historical, and cultural framework for mindfulness and other such practices, which are rooted in the earliest canonical sources but articulated here afresh.

I cannot pretend that my rethinking of the dharma has not been deeply influenced by the culture in which I was raised. As a modern Westerner, I cannot but consider Buddhism as a historically contingent phenomenon that has continually adapted itself to different circumstances. As the product of a Christian culture, I am drawn to recover a thoroughly human Buddha, whose life and deeds tell us as much about the dharma as the written record of what he said does. As someone who identifies with the Protestant movements within Christianity, I am skeptical of the authority and charisma of priests and seek a direct relationship with the dharma through my own study of the original texts. As a European, I am conscious of my indebtedness to the thinkers of ancient Greece who understood philosophy as a practice for the healing and care of the soul.


From the age of nineteen to the age of twenty-seven, I trained with lamas of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism, who taught me that ultimate truth was an emptiness of something that had never been there in the first place. I have sought to remain true to this idea ever since. I was told that the aim of Buddhist philosophy was to gain knowledge of such emptiness by rational analysis and inference, whereas the goal of Buddhist meditation was to focus on this insight until one achieved an immediate, nonconceptual understanding. This procedure of analysis and meditation was presented as the only way to gain enlightenment about the true nature of reality and thereby liberation from the ignorance that is the root cause of all suffering.

The realization of emptiness begins with an inquiry into what it means to be a self. When you try to get to the essence of a person, whether yourself or someone else, the quest goes on and on. It is not that no one is there — the uncanny sense of someone uniquely alive persists. But you will never arrive at an irreducible core of which you can say: "There! Found you!" In this sense, the self or person is said to be "empty."

To understand the emptiness of a person is to realize that this seemingly irreducible core has never been there in the first place. Tibetan lamas use the technical phrase rang bzhin gyis grub pa, usually translated as "inherently existent" or "intrinsically real," to describe what is to be negated. The phrase literally means "existing by virtue of its own face." It implies that no matter where or how probingly you look, you will not find anything in this world that exists self-sufficiently by its own intrinsic nature, in its own right, independent of all else. Why? Because every single thing in this strange world of ours, from an elephant to the tiniest subatomic particle, is contingent on proximate and distant causes, on parts to which it cannot be reduced, and on words and concepts that render it intelligible in a particular human culture.

According to Geluk teaching, the emptiness of inherent existence is a simple negation (med 'gag) as opposed to an affirming negation (ma yin 'gag). This means that the absence opened up by emptiness does not disclose and thereby affirm a transcendent reality (like God or Pure Consciousness) that was previously obscured by one's egoistic confusion. It simply removes a fiction that was never there. Although human beings seem to be instinctively programmed (no doubt for evolutionary reasons) to see themselves and people they desire or hate as self-sufficiently real, such inherent existence turns out to be a chimera.

I have just summarized the standard understanding of emptiness as it would be taught today by a figure such as the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Rather than using the word "emptiness," other Buddhist teachers might speak of "not-self" (anatta), which comes to much the same thing. Appearances, they will claim, are deceptive; unless we dispel the fiction of "self" or "inherent existence" we will never behold the true nature of things.

Yet when we consult the earliest Buddhist discourses, which are found in the Pali Canon and the Chinese Agamas, we discover that Gotama does not speak about emptiness in this way at all. Reading these earliest texts, I feel as though I am encountering another dialect of the same language: it uses many of the same words but in a curiously different way. The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness, for example, begins with the Buddha's attendant Ananda posing a question:

"You were once living in Sakiya, sir, among your kinsfolk in the town of Nagaraka. It was there that I heard you say from your own lips: 'Now I mainly dwell by dwelling in emptiness.' Did I hear that correctly?"

"Yes," replies Gotama. "Then, as now, do I mainly dwell by dwelling in emptiness."

The word that jumps off the page here is "dwell," which translates the Pali viharati. The noun form is vihara, "dwelling" or "abode," which has come to mean "monastery" — that is, a dwelling for monks. Yet to "dwell" or "abide" describes a primordial relation to this earth on which we live. Emptiness is first and foremost a condition in which we dwell, abide, and live. Another Pali discourse describes this emptiness as the "abode of a great person." Emptiness thus seems to be a perspective, a sensibility, a way of being in this poignant, contingent world. The "great person" would be one who has cultivated such a sensibility until it has become entirely natural. Rather than being the negation of "self," emptiness discloses the dignity of a person who has realized what it means to be fully human.

Such emptiness is far from being an ultimate truth that needs to be understood through logical inference and then directly realized in a state of nonconceptual meditation. It is a sensibility in which one dwells, not a privileged epistemological object that, through knowing, one gains a cognitive enlightenment.

The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness tells the story of a man who was searching for a way to live authentically on earth. Gotama starts his discourse with what is closest to hand: the villa in which he is staying with his mendicants. "In being empty of elephants, cattle, and horses, gold and silver, crowds of women and men," he remarks, "there is just one thing of which this villa is not empty: this group of mendicants." Yet a mendicant who finds this community too noisy and distracting will seek out the solitude of the forest, which is "empty of any awareness of villages or people." Thus the mendicant regards the forest as "empty of what is not there. And of what remains, he knows: 'This is what's here.'" Although the mendicant is no longer upset by the hustle and bustle of the world, he finds himself prone to the anxiety engendered by living in the forest.

To overcome this anxiety, the mendicant enters into progressively refined states of meditative absorption: on the earth's expanse, unlimited space, unlimited consciousness, nothingness, and being-neither-aware-nor-unaware. But at each stage he finds that there is still something within him that gives rise to unease. So he abandons the deep, trancelike states for a "signless concentration of the heart." Even so, he realizes that he is still "prone to the anxiety that comes from having the six sense fields of a living body." Whatever the virtues of his signless concentration, it is nonetheless "compounded and contrived" and therefore "impermanent and subject to ceasing." Only at this point, having exhausted the possibilities of meditating in sylvan solitude, does he realize that all these exercises are ultimately futile because they will come to an end.

He appears to have come full circle. Yet this very insight into impermanence grants him the peace of mind he has been seeking all along. "In knowing and seeing thus," continues Gotama, "his heart is freed from the effluences (asava) of desire, being, and ignorance." But this is not the end of the story. "With none of the anxieties due to those effluences," reflects the mendicant, "I am still prone to the anxiety that comes from having the six sense fields of a living body. This state of awareness is empty of those effluences. What is not empty is this: the six sense fields of a living body."


Excerpted from After Buddhisni by Stephen Batchelor. Copyright © 2015 Stephen Batchelor. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 After Buddhism 1

2 Mahanama: The Convert 29

3 A Fourfold Task 54

4 Pasenadi: The King 90

5 Letting Go of Truth 115

6 Sunakkhatta: The Traitor 151

7 Experience 178

8 Jivaka: The Doctor 206

9 The Everyday Sublime 231

10 Ananda: The Attendant 260

11 A Culture of Awakening 293

Afterword 323

Selected Discourses from the Pali Canon 333

Notes 343

Bibliography 365

Index 373


What are you trying to achieve in this book?
After Buddhism is the culmination of forty years of thinking about and practicing the dharma as a modern Westerner. I pull together a number of threads that I have explored in earlier writings, such as Buddhism without Beliefs. In all of my writings I address the question of how the teachings of this ancient Asian religion might speak to the condition of our secular age. This new work is an attempt to recover what was truly original about the Buddha's vision and to acquire a better understanding of the man himself. Recent scholarship affords us both a clearer picture of the historical world in which Gotama lived and more critical insight into the earliest discourses. Together, these allow the possibility of rethinking the dharma from the ground up.
Who have you written this book for?
With the widespread adoption of mindfulness, more and more people find themselves practicing a form of meditation that is rooted in the Buddhist tradition. I hope this book might do for Buddhist ethics and philosophy what the mindfulness movement has done for Buddhist meditation: provide a framework of values and ideas that have been stripped of their religious and metaphysical associations to reveal a practical way of life that is available to all—which might help us deal with some of the urgent questions we face as a human community in the twenty-first century.

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