Was the Buddha an Atheist?
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
By Stephen Batchelor
Spiegel and Grau, 2010; 336 pp., $26 (cloth)
By Steve Antinoff
Counterpoint Press, 2009; 151 pp., $14.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Gaylon Ferguson
Thirty-seven years ago, I became a Buddhist. Here is how it happened: I formally entered the Buddhist path in a short ceremony called “taking refuge,” an ancient ritual that stretches back to the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, some two and a half millennia ago. The preceptor who conducted my refuge ceremony was a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, formerly a fully ordained monk, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
On that snowy evening in Vermont, he carefully explained to the assembled dozen or so “refugees,” in a distinctly Oxonian English, that Buddhism was a nontheistic tradition. We were not taking refuge in the Buddha as a God—a divine or supernatural being—but as an example of a human being, who, starting with an abundance of neurotic confusion and existential uncertainty quite similar to our own, gradually unraveled his cocoon of delusion and finally awakened into vast, compassionate wisdom for the benefit of many beings. Thus, the ceremony marked our formal, public commitment to walking the path of meditation and study, and to a basic, ethical discipline of not causing harm to others through speech or action—in short, to waking up, just like the Buddha.
Reading these two books, I was reminded of the penetrating words of that simple ceremony: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha.” Here are two longtime Buddhist practitioners and teachers vigorously asserting that belief in the existence of God is not necessary or helpful for enlightened awakening; indeed, both affirm forms of spiritual atheism. Is this trendy “new atheism,” I wondered, the same as that gentle-voiced proclamation of basic sanity and nontheistic spirituality I heard so many years ago? When compared with the faiths of theism, are atheism, agnosticism, and nontheism all basically the same?
Stephen Batchelor, the author of seven previous books, including Buddhism Without Beliefs, and the translator of several important Buddhist texts, wants to recast the outlook of the entire tradition, starting with the historical Buddha himself. Here, Shakyamuni is re-envisioned as an amazingly modern secular humanist whose teachings arose entirely from reason and the evidence of experience, and certainly not from faith or belief in any “things unseen.”
Batchelor weaves a charming memoir of an early 1970s spiritual search that began with Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen, and Ram Dass’s just published Be Here Now, and moved on to the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “I grew my hair long, wore beads, and attended all-night rock concerts with liquid light-shows on Parliament Hill Fields, where I would listen to the Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, and the Edgar Broughton Band.” This is Batchelor’s brief though vivid evocation of a particular moment in the making of a counterculture; one can practically smell the hashish smoke wafting from the crowd.
By 1972—in an archetypal quest similar to thousands of that era—he arrived in Dharamsala, India, where he attended an audience with the Dalai Lama on a hill below the village of McLeod Ganj. “My ‘conversion’ to Buddhism was more or less immediate,” he writes. “I did not have to be persuaded either by philosophical arguments or religious polemics.” The bravery and cheerfulness of the steadfastly devoted Tibetan refugee community around the Dalai Lama made a particularly strong impression:
I was moved by the faith and courage of the ordinary Tibetan men and women…. They had followed the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas into India with little more than the clothes they wore.... Now they lived in poverty in one of the poorest countries in the world. But despite all this, they radiated an extraordinary warmth, lucidity, and joie de vivre…. Much of what animated me in those days I now recognize as the romantic yearnings of an idealistic, alienated, and aimless young man. I endowed these strange, exotic people, about whom I knew little, with all the virtues my own culture seemed to lack…. Yet at the core of my muddled quest lay a quiet certainty that I had stumbled across something authentic and true, which I could neither doubt nor adequately name. For the first time in my life, I had encountered a path: a purposive trajectory that led from bewilderment and anguish to something called “enlightenment.” Although I had only the dimmest idea of what “enlightenment” might mean, I embraced the path toward it.”
That passionate embrace soon led the young Batchelor to classes in basic Buddhism at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, to learning the Tibetan language, and to becoming, at the age of twenty-one, a novice monk. He spent the next five years studying abstruse Buddhist philosophies of logic and epistemology under a learned teacher, first in India then in Switzerland: “I found this approach highly appealing. Buddhism, it seemed, was a rational religion whose truth-claims could withstand the test of reason.”
All went well until the day he reluctantly realized that he did not actually believe the “proof” of rebirth he was being taught. Several sleepless nights and confessions of skepticism to his teacher followed, until “I resolved the dilemma by adopting an agnostic position on rebirth…. Were I to be questioned on the subject, the only honest answer would be to say that I did not know whether there was life after death or not.” Readers of Buddhism Without Beliefs will recall Batchelor’s chapter “Agnosticism,” in which he articulates and praises the outlook of an “agnostic Buddhist”:
The Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice”) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable.
Thus, the Buddha apparently followed the principles outlined by English biologist T. H. Huxley, who originated the term “agnostic” in 1869: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you…. Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” As Batchelor explains, “This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modern science.” We have here a strange sequence: the Buddha is being praised for soothingly confirming secular Western cultural assumptions, rather than transforming them into the direct experience of the sacred, enlightenment.
Batchelor’s position here directly parallels that of the “new atheist” Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, who praises Batchelor’s secular humanist stance: "Stephen Batchelor adds the universe of Buddhism to the many fields in which received truth and blind faith are now giving way to ethical and scientific humanism, in which lies our only real hope." In other words, Buddhism is truly great insofar as its outlook accords with the views of modern scientific humanism.
Let me sound a cautionary note here against straying into cultural chauvinism: if we are truly interested in learning from the Buddha's transformative practices and teachings, we need to be wary that the Buddha is not being forcibly recast as a wise spokesperson for the views that we already hold: “Thanks, Shakyamuni, for teaching us that we were right all along!” As Batchelor himself insightfully noted in his earlier book, Living with the Devil:
A dominant myth of modernity is provided by the scientific understanding of the world that has blossomed in the West during the past two centuries. So compelling is its account of the origins of the universe and sentient life, so awesome its explanatory and predictive power, so impressive the technologies made possible by its understanding of the physical world, that we refuse to acknowledge anything mythical about it. Even if what we believe is empirically verifiable, that does not prevent it from functioning as a myth. No matter how “true” the modern scientific worldview may be, it plays a similar role in our lives today as prescientific worldviews played in the lives of those in premodern cultures. For it too explains how human life is only fully intelligible as part of an immense cosmic drama that transcends it. It too is sustained by beliefs.
Batchelor’s own spiritual journey continued to Korea, where he engaged in strenuous koan practice during several three-month monastic retreats. But even in a lineage that stresses the importance of doubt (“When there is great doubt, then there is great awakening”), his questions took him beyond the bounds of tradition: “I was again being primed to arrive at an insight that would confirm the foregone conclusions of orthodoxy…. I now found myself in the curious position of practicing meditation in a [Korean Buddhist] school whose philosophy I rejected, while adhering to the philosophy of a [Tibetan] school whose meditation practices I rejected.” What’s a rational agnostic to do?
Eventually Batchelor took off the monastic robes, married a former Buddhist nun, and together they returned to lay life in a contemplative community in England. Batchelor turned more and more to the early discourses of the Buddha recorded as the Pali Canon, and began to construct an alternative portrait of the historical Buddha, eventually traveling to many of the small towns and villages in northern India and Nepal where Shakyamuni Buddha walked and taught for fifty years. This was a journey toward a Buddha cast—like Batchelor himself—as an “ironic atheist” poking fun at the irrational claims of believers:
On the few occasions in the [Pali] Canon…where Gotama explicitly addressed the question of God, he is presented as an ironic atheist. The rejection of God is not a mainstay of his teaching, and he did not get worked up about it. Such passages have the flavor of a diversion, a light entertainment, in which another of humanity’s irrational opinions is gently ridiculed and then put aside. This approach is in contrast to the aggressive atheism that periodically erupts in the modern West.
There are, then, atheisms of various stripes, and the Buddha’s was characteristically nonaggressive. This sounds akin to the gentle nontheism consistently taught by many modern Buddhist teachers.
It is, however, a resolutely secular Buddhism—shorn of ancient notions such as rebirth over lifetimes—that Batchelor teaches and writes about as most appropriate to spiritual searchers in our late modern times: “The more I prise Gotama’s teachings free from the matrix in which they are entrenched and the more I come to understand how his own life enfolded in the context of his times, the more I discern a template for living that I can apply at this time in this increasingly secular and globalized world.”
Of course, as many contemporary thinkers have pointed out, if the loss of a sense of the sacred under secular globalization is a key element in the personal, collective, and environmental distress of our time, it is unlikely that a return to sanity, freedom, wholeness, and ethical integrity will be found within the confines of that particular mental prison. We should note as well that here the Buddha’s teachings are being “prised free” from their Indian cultural matrix and wholly subsumed within Batchelor’s own cultural assumptions. This is hardly a model for accurate cross-cultural translation or mutually transforming dialogue.
Steve Antinoff’s book Spiritual Atheism, by contrast, is a short contemplative account of our modern predicament: “Spiritual atheism begins with a triple realization: that our experience of ourselves and our world leaves us ultimately dissatisfied, that our dissatisfaction is intolerable and so must be broken through, and that there is no God.” The main idea here is that we are inherently deeply spiritual beings who long for larger meanings than materialist, consumer culture can possibly provide. The absence of a transcendent deity to satisfy these longings is, for Antinoff, a given, but his main concern is: What can be done spiritually in a post-theistic cultural context?
Following his years of study and practice of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Antinoff introduces this ruminative exploration as a kind of natural or existential koan, an impossible dilemma which we must solve: “It is the argument of this book that the koan burning within the West, in Western culture as a whole and in its individuals, has been given its most fundamental expression by Dostoyevsky, in the mouth of his great character Kirilov in the novel The Devils: ‘God is necessary, and so must exist…. Yet I know that he doesn’t exist, and can’t exist.’”
The back cover of Spiritual Atheism frames it as “continuing where writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris left off,” but Harris clearly has a different agenda. As he says in the epilogue to The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason: “My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality.” Antinoff proposes a next step, opening the door on what he calls “religious atheism,” similar in many ways to the current postmodern appetite for a variety of spiritual experiences and paths, but not for commitment to a particular religious tradition.
So: nontheism, theism, atheism, agnosticism—are these the same, different, both similar and different? As far as walking a spiritual path of awakening is concerned, the key issue might not be definitions but fixation—solidifying any conceptual doctrine (atheistic, theistic, nontheistic) to hide and buffer ourselves from reality. In the 1980s, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche convened a series of interfaith dialogues among Christian and Buddhist contemplative practitioners at Naropa University. In remarks from those remarkable conversations, collected in a volume called Speaking of Silence, he emphasized nonfixated, direct perception:
As far as I can see, there is no difference between theism and nontheism, basically speaking. Declaring an involvement with any kind of “ism” turns out to be a matter of self and other. In fact, the whole question of self and other can then become very important. But if you really pursue any spiritual path, you will discover, surprisingly, that self and other are one thing. Self is other, other is self…. Through [spirituality] you begin to have greater contact with reality…. Whether you worship someone else or you worship yourself, it is the same thing. Both theism and nontheism can be problematic if you are not involving yourself personally and fully. You may think you are becoming spiritual, but instead you could just be trying to camouflage yourself behind a religious framework—and still you will be more visible than you think.
Usually we say that in theistic traditions you worship an external agent, and in nontheistic traditions you do not worship an external agent. Nonetheless, in either case you might just be looking for your version of a babysitter. Whether you hire a babysitter from the outside world or from within your own family doesn’t really matter. In either case your state of being isn’t being expressed properly, thoroughly, because you are trying to use some kind of substitute. We are not trying here to sort out which tradition, or which particular type of merchandise, is better. We are talking in terms of needing to develop a personal connection with one’s body and one’s mind. That is why the contemplative traditions of both East and West are very important.”
These two books of spiritual atheism emerge from the sparks that fly when East meets West—a broad, historical process of social transformation in which both Buddhism and our culture will interact and change in ways we cannot predict. This particular marriage negotiation has been going on for about a hundred years so far. Contemplating where it will eventually lead, I remembered a story told about Chinese premier Chou En Lai. When asked in 1953 what he thought about the French Revolution, Chou replied: “It is still too early to tell.”