Tag Archives: Stephen Batchelor

The Nattering Nabobs of Nibbāna

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara...

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4 H Clubs – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history. – Spiro T. Agnew, 1970

I’ve noticed something interesting about the Secular Buddhist movement. Many Secular Buddhist practitioners don’t seem to be comfortable with the idea of Nibbāna. Fascinating, but I find this makes me very sad. It seems in their attempt to make Buddhism more palatable to themselves some Secular Buddhist are willing to throw out the most extraordinary and life changing event that the Buddha has to offer to us – the experience of Nibbāna and for some, the complete ending of suffering and stress.

This isn’t surprising, really. Those of us that have grown up in mainstream U.S. society pride ourselves in a “realistic,” “hard-nosed,”  “down to earth” attitude. You can’t build a continent spanning railroad by reading tarot cards nor can you decide which mountain pass to cross by reading tea leaves. But this attitude has two downsides, both of which are present in a conversation I recently had with another Western Buddhist. I’ve edited our conversation to make it easier to read and to remove names. Emphasis is mine:

Them: [1] I for one can’t accept anything that is based on mystic beliefs…the Buddha said not to believe anybody, including himself, and to be a light onto yourself. If I can’t verify an experience for myself it really holds no value to me. My religion is Kindness and my faith is forgiveness…

Me: Do you think the experience of Nirvana is a mystical experience? It is an experience outside time and space. It is an experience is completely outside the normal experiences of the six senses. Is that mystical?

Them: [1] I don’t believe in Nirvana or Enlightenment as my goal in practice. I believe in chipping away delusion and developing compassion and forgiveness. [2] Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists, but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist.

First, many mainstream Westerners hold onto a rigid view that the current orthodox views of science offers a complete picture of the world and of the human experience. I don’t think this is true. My first two academic degrees were in Mathematics and Physics and one of the best parts of my scientific training was that I learned the strengths and limitations of the scientific method. I don’t believe science explains everything. Perhaps someday science will advance to the stage where it can explain and predict the aspects of our lives that currently are considered spiritual, but it isn’t there yet.

The second issue is more subtle and, I hate to say it, something I missed. When I showed this paper to a friend of mine who has studied Orientalism, the first thing she said was that the statement “Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists [e.g., Asian], but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist” was on the edge of being racist and at the very least showed a dismissive attitude towards Asian culture. I have to agree. At some level (probably unconscious) a belief in the superiority of mainstream Western culture helped form that statement. “Americans are too advanced to believe in the nonsense of mysticism, unlike the Asian practitioners.”  I realize it is impossible to know the intent of the speaker. I doubt this person meant harm, but from my multicultural studies here at the University of the West, and from my training in Buddhist Chaplaincy, I have learned this doesn’t matter. If we want to follow the Buddha’s ethics of non-harming we must be extremely mindful of the often unexamined biases we have about our own cultural superiority.

We also need to remember a very powerful philosophy, something mainstream Westerners call pragmatism (e.g., William James). “If it works, use it.” Westerners, of course, don’t own this concept. Before humanity discovered germs, we found that pouring alcohol into a wound reduced the number of people who died, so we kept pouring alcohol into wounds. Humanity found (using primitive statistics) that keeping sewage away from wells kept people from getting sick, so we kept sewage away from wells even though we didn’t know why this worked. If it worked, humanity used it, though often we didn’t have a scientific explanation.

The same holds true for the practice of Buddhism. If, as Dr. Grzegorz Polak says in his book, “Reexamining the Jhānas: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”

It seems very possible that if one started reading the suttas without any previous knowledge on Buddhism, he would see the jhānas as the most important element of the Buddhist doctrine.

Then perhaps we should find someone who uses the jhānas and ask them how this practice helps them on the path. If we know people we trust who we believe have experienced Nibbāna, then maybe we should open our minds to the possibility that we can awaken, either partially or fully and do so in this very lifetime.

Because I believe so strongly that awakening is possible in this very life, when a respected teacher such as Stephen Batchelor says this, I’m deeply saddened:

I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. As a secular Buddhist my practice is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in this world, in this century (our saeculum) where we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path here on earth. – Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2012, emphasis mine.

Because of firmly held cultural views about what types of human experience are acceptable (and because of the mistaken belief that striving for Nibbāna is incompatible with Engaged Buddhism and the path of the bodhisatta), Secular Buddhists such as Mr. Batchelor downplay Nibbāna. Since Batchelor is a widely respected teacher there will be those who will follow his teachings and believe they represent the total possibility of Buddhist practice. When I started practicing, one of the aspects of Western Buddhism that so excited me was the teaching that lay people as well as monks could awaken. This is not a teaching that has existed throughout the history of Buddhism. Using Theravāda Buddhism as an example, there appears to be a period in time, which lasted as long as perhaps a thousand years, when many Theravāda practitioners believed the world was so corrupt that no one, lay or monastic could awaken. For most of Buddhist history lay people were expected to work toward a better rebirth by collecting merit. It was not expected that they could or should try to awaken. It was the people of Burma, oppressed by colonialism, who realized that Theravāda Buddhism was dying in their country and something needed to change. They started teaching that people could awake, yes, even lay people. And thus begin the revival of Buddhist meditation and the revival of the belief in Nibbāna within the Theravāda tradition, a revival that arose independently in many other Buddhist traditions during that same era. It is my deepest hope that Convert Western Buddhism will not throw away the great gift given to us by those who practiced Buddhism before it came to the West, the gift of Nibbāna in this very life.

My thanks to my reviewers for their help improving this post. All opinions expressed and mistakes made in this post are my own.

On 4/19/13 I edited the post slightly to clarify a couple of points.

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A Buddhist Family: Redefining the Myth

Photo courtesy of cat gwynn © 2011

If you are browsing for dharma books in the religion section of your favorite bookstore, chances are that most books you pick up will begin with some version of the historical Buddha’s life story.  Usually the story will tell you how prince Siddhartha led a privileged life, protected by his father from the influence of the outside world until he had his three encounters with sickness, old age, and death.  The story continues with the decision of Siddhartha to leave his family to renounce the world until he can find an answer for the problem of suffering.  We are told that for seven years he struggles valiantly until he finally achieves liberation under the Bodhi tree.  Having become the Buddha, he sets the wheel of Dharma in motion, teaching for the rest of his life, and encouraging others to abandon their worldly concerns and enter into homelessness.

There is no doubt that the Buddha was a home wrecker.  Many who joined the Sangha did as the Noble One did with his example: leave their families behind.  The path of going into homelessness caused problems between wives and husbands, between parents and children.  The Buddha’s wife brought his young son before him and told Rahula to ask him for his inheritance.  I’m sure the single mothers of many a deadbeat dad delinquent on their child support can relate to this moment.  The Buddha himself recognized how the problem created suffering in the community and many rules in the Vinaya (the guidelines for Monks and Nuns) reflect his responses to these sticky domestic situations.

In many American import lay sanghas (especially amongst those who practice “Vipassana”), this model of homelessness and renunciation still appears to be the template for practice.  Partly due to the influence of IMS teachers who returned from Southeast Asia with a monastic model that they grafted onto American culture, practitioners often take long retreats, varying from 7 days to 3 months.  These retreats are conducted in noble silence, with no contact with the outside world.  Rates of marriage and childbirth are consistently lower amongst convert Buddhists than compared to the general population.  And although I haven’t seen any statistics on this issue, my own experience with Dharma teachers is that they tend to be single, or divorced.

Clearly there is a benefit to the practices that have been laid down in the Satipatthāna Sutta, the Vinaya, and in the many varied teachings of the Buddha and other teachers since.  I have the greatest respect for those who bravely enter into the Sangha of monks and nuns, and I am grateful for the support and fruits of their practice.  I know the value of retreat from experience.

But the question for me (especially being a married father) is, do we have to be single to practice, do we still have to follow this example of the Bhikkhu Buddha and abandon our families?  Can we as householders find practice beyond merit making and worship, which are the traditional practices of Buddhism for householders in many Asian countries as well as here in the U.S.?

I’m not sure how many of you reading this are in a relationship, but I can tell you that explaining to your spouse/partner that you need to go away for 10 days by yourself when you haven’t been on a honeymoon/vacation yet, and how it’s going to cost $1200 dollars, or however much plus Dana (what is the percentage tip on Dana anyway?), and how you won’t be available for conversation, so essentially any problems that arise will be the burden of your spouse/partner – this isn’t an easy conversation.  I don’t think this model works well for the health of relationships, and I don’t want my Buddhist practice to create more suffering.

I remember having to decline an opportunity to help lead a teen retreat at Spirit Rock over the New Year holiday.  I explained to the woman who invited me that it was the one-year anniversary of proposing to my wife.  Her response seemed appropriate to me, “Of course you can’t come, after all, isn’t that what we are doing all this practice for?”

Perhaps the model that we are following is the wrong one for us married / committed / parental householder types.  Perhaps that story at the beginning of all those dharma books is the wrong one for us.  I think it’s time for the myth to be retold.  Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, certainly has given us some reasons to take a look at the historical validity of the Buddha myth.

Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan was born into a large, loving family who had the means to support his development.  When his mother died of complications from childbirth, another of his father’s wives stepped in to help raise the boy.  As a member of the ruling warrior class, Siddhartha would have received vigorous training in weapons, hunting, and horseback riding that would have increased his stamina, strength and mental endurance.  His father, after all, did hope for him to become a great leader of men.  He would have also received a quality education.  To be a ruler requires the ability to administer, to read, and to think critically.  The qualities that allowed him to become, “the enlightened one,” physical endurance, mental clarity, and tenacity existed because of his upbringing.  Far from being a lone bull elephant, Siddhartha’s achievements were due to the support and connection to his family.  Even his entering into homelessness was due to the support of his family, or do you believe that the Noble One would have left his wife and infant son in poverty, alone and without protection?

Upon his awakening, the Buddha chose to return to the world, not to remain in the forest, not to slip into final nibbana.  In fact, he returned to his family.  The Buddha returned to the role of father, ordaining and teaching his son.  He also ordained his mother, who is the mythic/historic founder of the nuns sangha, and his wife.  Many of his clan entered into the Sangha, the men of the Sakya clan, and many of their abandoned wives who had nowhere else to turn for support did likewise.

It is doubtful that he would have found as many followers without his clan’s support network.  He wasn’t the only Śramana heterodox teacher on the scene after all.  Because of his connections and good table manners, he was able to teach to Kings, and the wealthy merchants who offered protection and large tracts of lands to the fledgling teacher.  These gifts of support were the Oprah Book Club of their day and because he was allowed the means to teach, we have today heard the Dharma of the historical Buddha.  However, had the Buddha ever truly abandoned his family, or had he been without family, I have doubts that “Buddhism” would even exist.

There is power in myth.  Storytelling teaches us on a level that is cellular, if not genetic.  So while I don’t always know how my practice as an American, married householder will continue to develop, I do know the power of a good tale.  Our mythology contains our view of the world, informs our intentions, and of course guides our actions.  If we are to find an “American” Buddhism, we may struggle when attempting to graft the mythology of another culture and time upon our own.  Perhaps it is time to embrace a different version of the story if we are to find our own way in the dharma of American family life.

Post by: Joseph Rogers.

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