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On Bullshit and Stephen Batchelor

A few years ago an essay was published entitled On Bullshit, by Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt, which does a splendid job elucidating the particular qualities of bullshit. The distinguishing characteristic of bullshit, Frankfort asserts, is indifference to the truth. Frankfurt writes, the bullshiter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

My problem with Stephen Batchelor's ideas is not that I think his preferences regarding Buddhism are invalid. My problem with his ideas is that he often supports them with bullshit claims. 

In a comment  to his own post here last week, Dennis Hunter mentioned an article in Mandala in which Alan Wallace delivers a thorough and sharp critique of Stephen Batchelor's new book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist and of his oeuvre in general. Wallace cuts straight the heart of the issue, as far as I'm concerned:

 . .  .for many contemporary people drawn to Buddhism, the teachings on karma and rebirth don’t sit well, so they are faced with a dilemma. A legitimate option is simply to adopt those theories and practices from various Buddhist traditions that one finds compelling and beneficial and set the others aside. An illegitimate option is to reinvent the Buddha and his teachings based on one’s own prejudices. This, unfortunately, is the route followed by Stephen Batchelor and other like-minded people who are intent on reshaping the Buddha in their own images.

I admire aspects of Batchelor's approach to Buddhism. I think he can and does contribute to a vital conversation about whether or not various aspects of Buddhism make sense. I certainly don't object to anyone adopting only those aspects of Buddhism that they find useful or that make sense to them. I really don't care who does or does not call themselves a Buddhist.

But often Batchelor takes it a step farther - he makes substantive claims about what the Buddha really taught that are often objectively, factually untrue, and here is where I take exception. He does it in a manner that suggests indifference on his part to the truth, and unfortunately that undermines what would otherwise be important contributions to a vital discourse.

One important instance Wallace refers to is as follows: in his earlier book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Batchelor asserts that the Buddha “did not claim to have had experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Quite the contrary, in the Aggañña Sutta the Buddha claims precisely that, giving an account of the history of the cosmology of our  entire world system and how human beings first came to exist. And that isn't unusual - the Buddha claims privileged esoteric knowledge all the time, even in the Pali canon that Batchelor considers to be the gold standard.

Batchelor seems to have been a little more careful in his current book, but unfortunately he continues to perpetuate a widespread misconception that reflects his own wishful thinking - in this case that the "ideas and doctrines" that Batchelor finds "difficult to accept in Buddhism . .rebirth, the law of karma, gods, other realms of existence, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, unconditioned consciousness" are "simply a reflection of ancient Indian cosmology and soteriology" and are "not, therefore, intrinsic to what he [the Buddha] taught."

Actually, as Wallace writes, "in reality, the Buddha’s detailed accounts of rebirth and karma differed significantly from other Indian thinkers’ views on these subjects; and given the wide range of philosophical views during his era, there was no uniformly accepted 'worldview of his time.'” The Buddha lived in a time when there was a dizzying array of views on these subjects, and he had no problem explicitly rejecting the ones he did not share regardless of how popular they were, upholding other widespread views, refusing to comment on some, and putting his own very unique spin on the rest.

It's one thing to consider certain views expressed in the various canonical texts of the various Buddhist traditions to be "not intrinsic to what the Buddha taught." We are all forced to do that to some degree or another. The problem begins, as Wallace points out, when we non-scholars attempt to validate our preferences by resorting to false claims based on ungrounded, self-serving, mistaken philology and history. It would be one thing if he made honest mistakes, but I don't get the sense that Batchelor really made much of an effort to ascertain whether or not his assertions about the milieu of India in the 5th century BCE have much truth to them. And indifference to the truth, as Frankfurt puts it, is the essence of bullshit. At this point, when many in the West are doing everything they can to get an accurate picture of Buddhism, we can't afford dharma teachers who are indifferent to the truth when it doesn't suit their agendas.

For a study of early Buddhism in its Indian context by someone actually qualified to make informed philological and historical claims, thankfully we can increasingly turn to books like Buddhist Teaching in India by Johannes Bronkhorst, published last year by Wisdom Publications. As more of these kinds of books emerge and we move toward an increasingly "open source" model of dharma, bullshit will be easier for the average person to spot and call out. I look forward to Stephen Batchelor arguing his opinions on their own merits rather than on false assertions.

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Great blog you have here.

You can definitely see your enthusiasm in the paintings you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren't afraid to http://blogs-service.com/ mention how they believe. Always go after your heart.

Perhaps Herr Professor Doktor

Perhaps Herr Professor Doktor Zwahlen will direct us to his own scholarly publications? I was unable to locate any.

What is most curious about greg's inveterate fetishization of the scholarly text is that he has defended books of zero scholarly merit such as Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Not only is Ingram illiterate in the ancient languages, his actual citations of primary texts in translation total less than a handful. As far as scholarship goes, Batchelor reads, writes, and thinks circles around Ingram.

Here's the difference

Neither Daniel Ingram or I are claiming to be able to discern what the "original Buddhism" was based on philological and historical arguments, as Stephen Batchelor does.So our lack of scholarly credentials is totally irrelevant.

And I certainly don't think scholarly books about Buddhism are the only kind of books that have merit. I've never said that. When people present their own take based on personal practice and experience and opinions, I have no problem with that. If that was all Batchelor was doing, it would be fine with me. And in fact, I've written favorable things about Batchelor before and I think a lot of his work is helpful and positive.

The irony is that although Batchelor claims to be such a free-thinker, he also somehow feels a compulsion to put all of his own opinions in the historical Buddha's mouth to the point where he'll resort to all sorts of falsehoods to do it.

Is this MU?

There's certainly no shortage of bullshit.

I would caution against decontextualizing even the Pali Canon from the material realities in which it emerged, and through which it passed.  It borders on disingenuous for Wallace or anyone else to suggest that what's in the Canon represents something distilled, unsullied by the effects of power, economic necessity, etc.  Quite the contrary, the Sangha (following the Buddha's death) had no less a need of State patronage than it ever had.  And when kings more favorable to the Brahmins ruled, the Sangha (rather intuitively) made certain concessions to secure patronage and their own survival.  This included the re-absorption of certain Hindu doctrines that the Buddha squarely rejects in other parts of the Canon.  Trevor Ling does a rather rigorous job of laying this out in his history of the Buddha.

I don't need to be uncomfortable with the teachings of karma and rebirth as conceived by particular religious institutions, in order to dispense with them.  Impermanence, non-self -- these are central pillars of the Buddha's teaching; arguably defining features thereof.  To accept a cosmological view of karma and rebirth not only clashes rather fiercely with the rebellion the Buddha represented to Hinduism, but it misses what strikes me as the real wisdom in those teachings.  

Invisible hand of karmic "justice" or not, if you act like a dick, life is going to be more difficult for you -- if only because of your own anxiety, guilt, shame, whathaveyou, and the emotional labor one undertakes in coping with those emotions.  Transmigration of some permanent entity from one body to another or not, we undertake new lives moment to moment -- in precisely the same ways that a recovering alcoholic embarks on a completely different life by going off the wagon than s/he would by renewing a commitment to sobriety.  There is a release from this pattern, by way of the conscious decisions we make in our lives.  This doesn't even begin to touch on the ecology proposed by reincarnation, simply as an articulation of physics and the law that matter cannot be created or destroyed.  We don't have a discernible beginning or end.  Period.  And delusion about this fact enables profoundly consequential misunderstandings of ecology and the impact of consumption, economic priorities, industry, agriculture, etc.

Walpola Rahula undertakes the same antimetaphysical reading of the Buddha that Bathcelor does, just perhaps with a different methodology.  So, to suggest that this approach is somehow attributable to Batchelor is to set aside whole bodies of literature -- even from culturally Buddhist geographies where superstition, opacity, and the service doctrine often provides to hierarchy is more likely to be observed.

Further, to suggest Batchelor is a non-scholar is to commit the very offense alleged in this post.  Aside from a rich life as a monastic in multiple traditions, the man speaks multiple languages, has translated dense works, and makes what are probably the most scholarly presentations on the tradition that are offered in the English language.  One could rather more easily argue that what makes Batchelor's propositions so polarizing is precisely that he is a scholar, dispensing with taboo and ideological loyalties (as we expect the best of our scholars to do), and casting into instability assumptions upon which rest the security and viability of a number of projects -- rather longstanding and lucrative careers among them.

What I find most curious about the ire and outrage directed at Batchelor is that I've seen none of that surface when cosmological readings of karma and reincarnation are deployed to explain why (for instance) children are sexually abused -- something I've seen rather mainstream Buddhist teachers do on more than one occasion.  The assertion is appalling in every way, and instrumentalizes the experience(s) of victims as some warning sign for the rest of us.  But as it conforms to the going ideology, we seem to miss the grave ethical failure therein.  It's unclear to me why, in light of such things, we even have the energy to find Batchelor so much as annoying.

  Wallace never suggests


Wallace never suggests that the Pali canon can be decontextualized. 
Further, Batchelor certainly does not make the "most scholarly presentations on the tradition that are offered in the English language." As he admits, he doesn't read Pali or Sanskrit, which is a crucial skill for someone trying to situate early Buddhism in its Indian context using philology and history (which is what he claims to be trying to do). If you have a look at his biography, you'll see he has published all of zero scholarly publications and doesn't have an advanced degree in anything.
Even if he did no new research and instead relied on entirely secondary sources, that would still be ok - but he doesn't do that either. His books are not scholarly at all - they have no footnotes, do not offer new historical or philological research or even cite the existing body thereof, and hardly ever mention any sources at all, primary or secondary. As Wallace states, they are entirely based on wishful thinking. If you have a look at the Bronkhorst book I mentioned, the difference will be immediately apparent.

In Batchelor's defense...

In Batchelor's defense, I believe he freely admits that he is "making the Buddha in his own image" and "picking and choosing" from the Pali suttas to create a contemporary dharma/Buddhology. I don't have the book in front of me, but he does say something to this effect and defends this by stating that humans -- including good Buddhists -- have ALWAYS done so with regard their myths, religions, etc.

Are the authors of the Mahayana sutras also "bullshitters" because they passed off their "discovered" writings as the authentic words of the Buddha? Or were they engaging in their own myth-making relevant to their own times and needs? For that matter, to what extent could we also bring much of the Pali suttas into skeptical consideration, realizing that they were written hundreds of years after the Buddha's death and clearly engage in a fair amount of hagiography?


I think my essay addressed

I think my essay addressed your point already:

It's one thing to consider certain views expressed in the various canonical texts of the various Buddhist traditions to be "not intrinsic to what the Buddha taught." We are all forced to do that to some degree or another. The problem begins, as Wallace points out, when we non-scholars attempt to validate our preferences by resorting to false claims based on ungrounded, self-serving, mistaken philology and history.

My problem with Batchelor is not that he picks and chooses the scripture that appeals to him. My problem is that he defends his choices with amateur historical and philological arguments that are flat out factually wrong, and he seems to be quite careless about it.

on "bullshit and stephen batchelor

i'm glad to learn that Alan Wallace took this on, but long before
he did a very well-known buddhist scholar also did so, on an
earlier opus of Batchelor's.... with uncharacteristically few words
this person asserted that Batchelor didn't understand the meaning
of emptiness. Seems to me it has gone downhill from there.Hard
to resist tho biting into a title that has " confessions", "buddhist",
and "atheist" all together.

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