A critical Examination of the Agnostic Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor

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A Critical Examination of the Agnostic Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor
Marjorie L. Silverman

Department of Religious Studies

McGill University, Montreal QC

What happens when a foreign belief system migrates to a new land? Throughout history, the merging of various cultural and religious traditions has produced a dynamic and ever-changing fusion of rituals, beliefs, and social norms. This fusion has also created debate among traditionalists, who often view the merging of traditions as a misguided cultural loss, and modernists, who view such change as an inevitable and exciting opportunity for new spiritual growth. Motivated by the fear of loss, traditionalists often claim that their religion must be adhered to in its original word and form. Modernists, however, often attempt to assist in the act of integration through linguistic and cultural translation that not only makes the religion accessible to new believers, but also updates it to reflect modern-day concerns.
This phenomenon of integration and adaptation is presently occurring in Western Buddhist communities. Although Europeans gained knowledge of Buddhism as early as the thirteenth century, it was only in the twentieth century that it began to take hold in the Western world as a form of spiritual practice.[1] It was not until the 1960s that cohesive spiritual communities, sanghas, began to form in both Europe and North America, prompted both by the arrival of Buddhist leaders to the Western world and the travel of many young Westerners to Asia. Thus began a dialogue and a process of integration between Asian systems of thought and Judeo-Christian-influenced Western values and traditions. Stephen Batchelor describes this process in the following manner:
The forms Buddhism assumes as an institutional religion are always contingent upon historical conditions. Each Asian country in which Buddhism took root has produced its own distinct variant of the Dharma…And if it is to take root in Europe [and North America] a similar pattern of adaptation will inevitably follow.[2]
This analysis suggests that dialogue between multiple cultural systems leads inevitably to adaptation.
Stephen Batchelor is a Western Buddhist practitioner and author who has devoted his energies to the merging of classical Buddhist and modern Western values. He is a linguistic translator, transforming many important Tibetan and Korean texts into English, as well as a cultural mediator. The philosophical stance employed by Batchelor in his attempt to present Buddhism to a mainstream audience has sparked much debate in Western Buddhist communities. Critiques have been written in response to his philosophy, in particular to his book Buddhism Without Beliefs in which he espouses a philosophy of agnostic Buddhism.
The current study evaluates whether these critiques are justified, through an examination of the nature of Batchelor’s philosophical stance, his cultural mediation, and the implications of his agnostic vision of Buddhism. It attempts to uncover the assumptions underlying the critiques as well as Batchelor’s philosophy. Whereas the critics feel that Batchelor is discarding the essence of Buddhism, Batchelor feels that belief systems inhibit this essence – which is, paradoxically, that there is no essence – from making its presence felt. The main issue under examination is whether, according to Batchelor’s agenda, Buddhism ceases to be Buddhism.
The introductory chapter provides an overview of the issues discussed throughout this paper. It begins with a brief resumé of Stephen Batchelor’s academic and monastic education, and it highlights some of the many influences that have helped to shape his philosophical approach. Secondly, it briefly discusses Batchelor’s spiritual agenda as outlined in his three main philosophical texts – Alone With Others (1983), The Faith to Doubt (1990), and Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997).
Chapter two examines three critiques that have been leveled against Stephen Batchelor. Although all three of these critiques are directed towards Buddhism Without Beliefs, they raise important issues that are relevant to all of Batchelor’s writings and which serve as a good launching pad to analyse Batchelor’s agnostic Buddhism. The critiques to be examined are those of Bhikkhu Punnadhammo, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Sangharakshita, three of the most prominent voices of opposition to Buddhism Without Beliefs. Although they each raise similar issues of contention, they approach them from slightly different angles.
The third chapter examines the first dimension of Batchelor’s project, his philosophical thought, in order to later determine whether the critiques directed against him are justified. All three of Batchelor’s main philosophical texts are surveyed. Of primary importance is his stance on belief (or, rather, non-belief) and how this colors his interpretation of karma, rebirth, and enlightenment. His theory of agnosticism is then examined, and the differences between agnosticism and scepticism are discussed.
Chapter four examines the second dimension of Batchelor’s project – his cultural translation. Cultural translation is here defined as the ability to integrate multiple cultural frameworks, and the ability to make foreign concepts accessible and relevant. Does Batchelor succeed in this role, or does his desire to integrate Buddhism into a Western cultural framework lead to a watering down of Buddhist doctrine? In discussing Batchelor’s role as a cultural translator, two other books of his, The Awakening of the West (1994) and Verses From the Center (2000) are introduced. Both of these books, one a survey of how Buddhism infiltrated the West, and the other a poetic and accessible translation of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, illustrate that one of Batchelor’s goals is to translate the messages of classical Buddhism into a language that modern Westerners can comprehend. Yet they also raise questions as to whether the message of Buddhism is being distorted.
Chapter five returns to the critiques directed toward Batchelor and to the question of whether or not they are defensible. Vital questions are asked both of the critics and of Batchelor’s work, and the assumptions underlying their arguments are uncovered. It is concluded that much of the conflict between Batchelor and his critics arises from their differences of opinion as to where the context for action, ethics, and the basis for the spiritual life is located.
Finally, chapter six ties together many of the arguments introduced throughout the paper. It concludes that Batchelor is indeed challenging the religiosity of Buddhism both through his philosophy and in his role as a cultural translator, but that this is done in a manner that attacks only its institutional structures rather than its core. Thus, because Batchelor’s challenge stems from a motivation to expose and to make relevant the Dharma, his particular interpretation of Buddhism should still be called Buddhism. Whether or not Batchelor’s vision of Buddhism will avoid the grip of assimilation remains to be seen.
Throughout this paper I make reference to “East” and “West” as well as to that elusive thing called “Western Buddhism”. Although Batchelor also uses such distinctions in much of his writing, he states simultaneously that “Western Buddhism” is a concept that does not exist, as “the Dharma finds its form not because there’s some essential Dharma that dresses up in Tibetan robes or Japanese robes. What the Dharma is, in that instant, is that particular manifestation, and it needs to be respected as such.”[3] Batchelor feels that Buddhism is simply Buddhism in no matter what cultural framework it is found. According to Batchelor, Buddhism does not need to be preceded by the adjectives “Western” or “Eastern”. In light of this, I have been careful not to impose East/West distinctions on Batchelor’s thought where he has not imposed them himself.

[1] Batchelor, Stephen. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1994) xii.
[2] Batchelor, Awakening of West 277.
[3] Batchelor, Stephen. “Deep Agnosticism: A Secular Vision of Dharma Practice” in Buddhism in America: Proceedings From the First Buddhism in America Conference. Al Rapaport, ed. (Vermont: Tuttle, 1998) 188.

This chapter provides an overview of Batchelor’s life, work, and philosophical stance in order to orient the reader to the various concepts that will be raised throughout the paper.
1.1) Biographical Information
Stephen Batchelor is a contemporary Buddhist thinker with an extensive personal history of Buddhist practice and scholarship. Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1953, he completed his secondary education in Watford, England. In 1972, at the age of nineteen, Batchelor became a student at The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamasala, India. His teachers at this Tibetan institute were Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Geshe Rabten, and Serkong Tsenshap Rinpoche. In 1975, he left India for the Tibetan Monastic Institute in Rikon, Switzerland, and two years later he moved to Tharpa Choeling: Centre for Higher Tibetan Studies in Le Mont-Pelerin, Switzerland. His teacher throughout this time remained Geshe Rabten. Batchelor’s study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism continued in Hamburg, Germany, where he was a student at Tibetisches Zentrum under the instruction of Geshe Thubten Ngawang from 1979 to 1980.
Throughout these years of study, Batchelor underwent two ordinations. In 1974 he became a Getsul (shramanera), a novice monk, and in 1978 he became a Gelong (bhikshu), a fully ordained monastic.
During his years of practice both as a novice and as a monk, Batchelor felt a growing discomfort with institutional Buddhism in general and with Tibetan philosophy and practice in particular. In his book The Faith to Doubt Batchelor describes his disillusionment with the Tibetan system and his attraction to Zen: “Once inside the system, there is no room for doubt. The teacher is enlightened, and the path complete and perfect. Everything you need to know has been accounted for; it is just a matter of putting the teachings into practice.”[1] As well as this growing discomfort with the type of faith required of him, a number of other transformative factors signaled to Batchelor that it was time to leave the Tibetan tradition. As described in The Faith to Doubt, the first of these factors was the discovery of insight meditation (vipassana), a technique of concentrated mindfulness, which Batchelor found more effective than the Tibetan practices being taught by his teachers.
Secondly, Batchelor came across the Kalama Sutta[2] in which the Buddha is recorded at stating: “Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances…when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.”[3] This message of self-reliance was the opposite of the messages of devotion being stressed by his teachers. Batchelor found it to be a refreshing change of perspective.
As well as delving into Buddhist literature, Batchelor also began studying Western philosophy and existentialism. The writings of Martin Buber in particular had an enormous impact on his psyche, especially Buber’s philosophy of the unreliability of our perceptions of the world.[4]
There was one more factor that influenced Batchelor’s decision to leave the Tibetan tradition. One day while he was walking in the woods, he had what he describes as a “mystical” experience. He became acutely aware of the intense beauty and the intense mystery of life. He says that this experience provided no concrete answers but “revealed the massiveness of the question.” He also writes: “From that time on my practice of Buddhism has been one of unraveling the perception of life and the world revealed in those moments.”[5]
The inner conflict created by this ongoing existential crisis led Batchelor to seek psychotherapy. From 1976 to 1981, while still a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Batchelor underwent Jungian therapy in Zollikon, Zurich with Dora Kalff, who had been trained by Carl Jung’s wife Emma Jung. Batchelor also read widely the writings of Jung and his followers, and attended numerous seminars in Jungian psychology.
In 1981, his psychoanalysis completed and his ties with the Tibetan community temporarily severed, Batchelor entered Songgwang Sa Monastery in South Korea, headed by Kusan Sunim. Suddenly he was immersed in an environment of “radical questioning”[6] that not only allowed for, but also honored, doubt. At the monastery he was confronted constantly by the questions “what is it?”, “what?”, “what is this?”, the favorite koans of Kusan Sunim. This incessant questioning of everything that is normally taken for granted was precisely what Batchelor needed at this stage in his life. The doors of questioning that had been shut during his Tibetan training were now wide open.
In 1985, at the age of 32, Batchelor disrobed and assumed the life of a householder. He states in an interview: “I saw less and less reason to remain as a monk by the end of my Zen training. It had, in a sense, served its purpose.”[7] After disrobing, Batchelor moved back to Europe and married Martine Fages, whom he had met at the Songgwang Sa Monastery and with whom he had co-edited a book of Kusan Sunim’s teachings. Batchelor was still very much committed to Buddhism and continued his involvement as a lay practitioner. Since his disrobing he has been highly involved in community projects and education. From 1992 to 1996 he coordinated the Sharpham Trust, from which the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry developed. Until 2000 Batchelor was director of studies at this unique college which, along with various community programs, holds bi-yearly ten week long courses that combine Buddhist thought with Western philosophy, body work, gardening, and communal living. As well, he is a founding member of the Network for Western Buddhist Teachers, an affiliated member of the University of Bristol Centre for Buddhist Studies, and a guiding teacher at Gaia House in Devon, England.
Stephen Batchelor is also a prolific author. He began his philosophical musings in 1983 with Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, which expresses the seeds of his discontent with the formalization and institutionalization of Buddhism. The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty (1990) follows from Alone With Others by stressing the importance of the doubting and questioning elements of Buddhism. These ideas flower to fruition in Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (1997). It is here where Batchelor makes explicit his philosophy of agnostic Buddhism. His most recent philosophical work, Verses From the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime (2000), contains both a short essay on Nagarjuna and a poetic translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika.
As well as these philosophical texts Batchelor is also the author of The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture (1994), which outlines the history of Buddhism in the West. He has translated three texts by Geshe Rabten, as well as Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. He is editor and translator of a number of books[8], and his articles and essays have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, most commonly Tricycle Magazine, of which he is a contributing editor.
A prolific writer, an engaged Buddhist, a community activist, and an instigator of much debate, Stephen Batchelor is indeed an influential figure in contemporary Western Buddhism. The nature of his controversial philosophies is outlined briefly in the following section.
1.2) An Overview of Batchelor’s Philosophical Project
Stephen Batchelor’s vision of Buddhism is one of an active agnosticism. Batchelor claims that Buddhism’s institutionalization solidified into doctrine much of the religion’s spirit of questioning. Batchelor advocates a return to the doubting and questioning origins of Buddhism so that practitioners do not cling to doctrine for security. He states, “an agnostic Buddhist looks to the Dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation”[9] and thus practitioners should not be afraid to proclaim, “I don’t know”. One of Batchelor’s goals is to tug the rug of security from underneath the feet of modern practitioners. He encourages practitioners to make the Dharma an active force rather than a passive doctrine and to take advantage of the unique opportunity currently present in the West as the Dharma is still in its formative stages.
In Alone With Others Batchelor explains that in our consumer-oriented culture we have become preoccupied with “having” instead of “being”. We have become infatuated with possessing things, including religion. In this state of mind “enlightenment and eternal life are conceived as things that can be obtained by each individual”[10] instead of ideas that challenge us on the most fundamental levels. According to Batchelor, the more we treat religion as an acquisition the more detached from ourselves we become and the more existential alienation we feel.
This phenomenon of “having”, or possessing, is both the cause and the result of the increased institutionalization of Buddhism. Says Batchelor: “One consequence of this process of formalization and institutionalization is that the religion becomes reabsorbed into the dimension of having” and hence its beliefs, symbols, and rituals are reified and concretized.[11] Religion thus becomes a “receptacle of facts and information” rather than a force that encourages us to confront what Batchelor feels is the most important question: “What is the meaning and purpose of life in the light of inevitable death?”[12]
Rather than adopt Buddhist doctrine as simply one more acquisition, practitioners should accept the challenge of existential confrontation. Batchelor asserts that the existential aspects of Buddhism teach us how to live both with ourselves and with others. The Buddhist path is a means of “fully realizing both authentic being-for-oneself and authentic being-for-others.”[13] Anxiety regarding our inescapable emptiness and aloneness can cause us to flee from our “existential responsibility”[14] into the comfort and security of belief. But this is not the goal of Buddhism. According to Batchelor “the essence of Buddhist faith resides in an ontological commitment that is prior to all articulate formulations.”[15]
In The Faith to Doubt Batchelor again raises the issues of institutionalization and existential confrontation in the context of describing his disillusionment with Tibetan Buddhism and his discovery of Zen. He claims that the institutionalization of Buddhism has encouraged practitioners to look upon Buddhist doctrine with certainty; yet this undermines the entire Buddhist project of impermanence and doubt. Whereas clinging to belief provides a false sense of security through stagnation, confronting and accepting our doubt and uncertainty replenishes the momentariness of existence, the beauty of mortality, and the wonder of our surroundings. It also allows us to feel a sense of interconnectedness and compassion, as well as a sense of the responsibility we share for all other beings.[16]
To doubt does not mean to be indecisive; “it means to keep alive the perplexity at the heart of our life, to acknowledge that fundamentally we do not know what is going on, to question whatever arises.”[17] Contrary to our instinctual perceptions regarding doubt, Batchelor claims that doubting requires faith – not the type of faith in which one submits to an authority, but rather faith in one’s strength to surrender to the truth about one’s self. Similarly, Batchelor distinguishes between unknowing and ignorance. To be in a state of unknowing, says Batchelor, is to maintain an openness to the mysteries of life. Ignorance, on the other hand, involves grasping and clinging as well as both the absence and distortion of knowledge.[18] Again Batchelor is encouraging practitioners to abandon security for the challenging expansiveness of existence.
In Buddhism Without Beliefs Batchelor’s call for doubt and uncertainty becomes a full-fledged assault on beliefs. It is in this book that Batchelor states explicitly his vision of agnostic Buddhism. Following from his previous texts, Batchelor asserts that Buddhism is not something to believe in but something to act upon.[19] He claims that the Buddha was not a mystical figure but a healer who taught the way to confront and act upon our anguish and suffering. Enlightenment is not a set of ideas and rituals that once acquired and performed will lead to spiritual maturity; rather, it is a process of continual mindfulness, personal confrontation, and compassion that leads gradually to a state of awakening. Batchelor uses the term “awakening” throughout much of his writing, preferring it to the more common usage “enlightenment”, as he feels that it more accurately conveys the experience of spiritual maturity. It also reflects a more accurate translation of the Sanskrit term bodhi.
Batchelor advocates a return to what he claims are the historically agnostic roots of Buddhism that were lost through institutionalization.[20] He presents an agnosticism that he asserts is just as challenging as traditional belief systems. To be an agnostic requires an enormous amount of commitment as it forces us to “confront the enormity of having been born”.[21] It entails a “passionate recognition” that we don’t know the answers to why we were born or what we are doing on this planet.[22] Like Batchelor’s definition of doubt, his definition of agnosticism is not one of indifference; rather, it is a “catalyst for action.”[23]
The agnosticism advocated by Batchelor impacts enormously on his interpretation of all Buddhist doctrine. For example, he disregards the traditional Buddhist view of rebirth, claiming that the doctrine is simply a by-product of the prevailing Indian worldview during the Buddha’s lifetime. As well, he asserts, “to cling to the idea of rebirth can deaden the questioning [of what it means to be human].”[24] Similarly, Batchelor claims that the Buddha, when asked about karma “tended to emphasize its psychological rather than its cosmological implications.”[25] According to Batchelor, the idea of karma alone cannot provide answers to questions regarding the existence of the universe or the origin of our lives. Indeed, according to Batchelor, Buddhist doctrine cannot provide explanations to any scientific questions; it should be concerned solely with existential issues.
The above overview of Batchelor’s philosophy indicates that much of what he espouses is quite controversial. His negation of beliefs and his unconventional stance on matters of karma and rebirth are all targets for criticism from other Buddhists. These specific criticisms are addressed in the following chapter.

[1] Batchelor, Stephen. The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990) 9.
[2] The Kalama Sutta is found in the Anguttara Nikaya, Tika Nipata, in the Pali Canon. In this Sutta the Buddha tells his students that it is proper to have doubt and perplexity and that they should not be led by tradition or hearsay. This Sutta is the main text used to illustrate the tenets of free enquiry within Buddhism.
[3] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 9.
[4] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 12.
[5] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 10.
[6] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 26.
[7] Batchelor, http://www.dharma.org/insight/1996b/batchelor.htm
[8] Batchelor is the editor of The Way of Korean Zen. Kusan Sunim. (New York/Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 1985); The Jewel in the Lotus: A Guide to the Buddhist Traditions of Tibet. (London/Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987); The Practice of Generosity: First Steps Towards a Buddhist Economics. (Sharpham, Devon: Sharpham Trust, 1993); The Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Science and our Day-to-Day Lives. with Gay Watson and Guy Claxton. (London: Rider, 1999). He is the translator of Shantideva. A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. (Dharamasala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1979); Geshe Rabten. Echoes of Voidness. (London/Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1983); Geshe Rabten. Song of Profound View. (London/Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1989); Geshe Rabten. The Mind and its Functions: A Textbook of Buddhist Epistemology and Psychology. (Mt. Pelerin, Switzerland: Rabten Choeling, 1991)
[9] Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (New York: Riverhead, 1997) 18.
[10] Batchelor, Stephen. Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism. (New York: Grove Press, 1983) 28.
[11] Batchelor, Alone With Others 41.
[12] Batchelor, Alone With Others 41 - 42.
[13] Batchelor, Alone With Others 59.
[14] Batchelor, Alone With Others 62.
[15] Batchelor, Alone With Others 67.
[16] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 4.
[17] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 16.
[18] Batchelor, Faith to Doubt 44.
[19] Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs 4.
[20] In the Majjhima-Nikaya in the Pali Canon there is reference to ten metaphysical questions that the Buddha refused to answer. The Buddha states that he does not wish to answer them because they are unnecessary for holy life and are not conducive to developing non-attachment. Proponents of an agnostic Buddhism point to these questions to indicate the historical roots of their position. The ten questions are: 1) Is the world eternal? 2) Is the world not eternal? 3) Is the world finite? 4) Is the world infinite? 5) Is the soul identical to the body? 6) Is the soul not identical to the body? 7) Does the Tathagata exist after death? 8) Does the Tathagata not exist after death? 9) Does the Tathagata both exist and not exist after death? 10) Does the Tathagata neither exist nor not exist after death?
[21] Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs 19.
[22] Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs 19.
[23] Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs 38.
[24] Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs 38.
[25] Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs 37.
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