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Submitted by Greg Zwahlen on Thu, 10/14/2010, 1:45pm
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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