A review of After Buddhism – focussing dharma for years to come

June 9, 2018

After Buddhism: Rethinking the dharma for a secular age, Stephen Batchelor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 381 pp.)

After Buddhism cover 380x570

The first responders to the call of ancient spiritual geniuses faced the choice of remaining in ephemeral small circles and soon disappearing, or seeking an immortality of sorts in durable religious institutions. After the Buddha’s and Jesus’ deaths, for instance, their followers took the second option. And paid a high price for it. Institutions as such generate their own logics of power and control – internally through resort to hierarchy and orthodoxy, and externally by falling into bed with tyrants, plutocrats and oligarchs. And so it was for the Buddhists and the Christians.

Specifically religious institutions have to offer their powerful bedfellows legitimation, and they need to propagate a morality that doesn’t undermine their authority. Institutionalised religions also need their own stock-in-trade: consoling rituals, and a rollicking good story – supported by an elaborate belief system – about salvation, obedience to authority, and a paradise in the next life to reward the compliant and uncomplaining. Included in the high price to be paid for all this is the skewing and masking of the founding genius’s original teaching, all in the name of ‘preserving’ it.

In the western world, at least, we’re now living in a secular age in which traditional religious institutions and their theologies have lost their earlier cachet. As these once towering edifices crumble, some of those who’ve caught a whiff of the first teachings have begun poking around in the footings to uncover the original floor plan. They’re seeking to clear away the grandiose, no-longer-fit-for-purpose add-ons and bolt-ons, and to build on the newly exposed foundations something that is more in line with the original concept.

It must be something that also meets the spiritual needs of educated and individuated modern people who – along with everyone else who’s ever lived – have to answer the ur-questions: ‘How should I live?’ and ‘What sort of person should I become?’

This project thus involves both the careful retrieval of the earliest teachings, and their reissue in terms that strike a chord and meet existential needs in our own age. It also scrapes together mounds of metaphysical clutter for consignment to landfill.
With his After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor – a high-profile proponent of today’s secular Buddhism – presents the rich rewards of this project when applied to the Buddha’s teaching. Significantly, he’s dedicated his book to his Christian colleague, Don Cupitt – the philosopher of religion and former Anglican priest who’s done much the same job for Jesus’ teaching.

Batchelor’s title hints at the intention to leave ‘Buddhism’ behind, which term refers to the many institutionalised orthodoxies and practices that early nineteenth-century European travellers ‘discovered’ in Asia and lumped together, and that still constitute the visible face of Buddhism today. Instead of this earlier European coinage, ‘Buddhism’, we might more usefully speak of the many ‘actually-existing Buddhisms’ that obstruct the retrieval and reissuing in question. The book’s subtitle, Rethinking the dharma for a secular age, uses the Sanskrit term, ‘dharma’ (long since adopted into English) for the Buddha’s own teaching and its authentic reverberations down to our own time.

We might also frame Batchelor’s project in cultural terms. Each time the dharma has spread from its original Indian culture into an entirely different one, it has had to recalibrate, express itself using the resources of the new culture, and find affinities in it. Its taking root in China and finding affinities with Taoism, starting two millennia ago, is the classic example. Especially in the case of the resulting Chan school (Sŏn in Korea, Zen in Japan), the outcome of this process has been fortuitous. It has liberated the dharma from the constraints of ancient Indian culture, such as its bleak view of this life on earth, and the corresponding yearning for transcendence from the earthbound human condition to another existence and realm entirely. Batchelor draws on the East Asian experience as he works towards replicating it in the context of the dharma putting down ever deeper roots in the West.

As a veteran scholar and a gifted wordsmith, Stephen Batchelor is extraordinarily well-placed to take on this work and present it persuasively to a modern public. He’s had monastic experience in both Tibetan Buddhism and Korean Sŏn. He knows Pali (the original canonical language of the dharma), and has spent years plumbing the Pali canon, not only to uncover the profundities and subtleties of the Buddha’s teaching, but also to build up a picture of the actual life-world that the latter inhabited as the individual known to his contemporaries as Siddhattha Gotama. The second of these undertakings informs the first.

In the process Batchelor has also extrapolated the life stories of some of Gotama’s followers, and sketches their relationships with him; these tend to be householder followers whom the monastic commentators have ignored. Brought back to life, they have tales to tell that can intrigue and inform today’s dharma practitioners. He has literally done the hard yards, slogging around the Ganges basin to get a sense of the lay of the land in which Gotama spoke and acted. (See in this context the second part of his 2010 book, Confession of a Buddhist atheist.) Here too, Batchelor makes good the monastic and scholastic neglect of Gotama as an historical figure, one which disrupts conventional representations of the Buddha as a contextless, timeless demi-god articulating ‘the view from nowhere’.

Key themes

The structure of After Buddhism follows this dual focus. Chapters on vital dharmic issues alternate with the stories of contrasting associates of the Buddha: a chairman of a ruling council, a king, a disgruntled follower turned traitor, a diligent physician, and Ānanda his attendant – the only one whose name may be familiar to many Buddhists. Batchelor draws out of their stories particularly sharp observations about what really matters in the development of a meaningful life and the pursuit of awakening.

Buddhism as a belief-based religion like any other now gives way to the dharma seen as a radical ethics – a task-based practice that suffuses and renders meaningful every facet of the practitioner’s life. Not in order to gain a better life ‘next time’, but to ennoble the one s/he is living here and now. We don’t need to believe anything outside our own direct experience in order to commit to this path and observe its efficacy in our own lives.

Modern scholarship has shown the famous Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to be distortions of the Buddha’s first discourse which supposedly announced them. They mask the actual text with its limpid description of four tasks at the core of dharma practice: wholeheartedly embracing the human condition, not least its tragic, most difficult aspects; letting go of the reactivity we instinctively resort to when we try to duck them; savouring the tranquillity and lucidity (nirvana) we achieve, however briefly, whenever we’re entirely free of that reactivity; and cultivating the eightfold path that makes every aspect of our lives an enriching facet of dharma practice.

The directly ethical aspects of the dharma include those spelt out in the five precepts and the six (or ten) ‘perfections’. But Batchelor highlights the master virtue on which all the others rest: care, or appamāda in Pali. Pali words notoriously attract many English synonyms; in this case, however, the English equivalent is equally versatile. We care about ourselves, we care for (and even take care of) certain others, and we care about those who surround us in our private lives. Beyond that we may care about people and things remote from us, right up to global warming and species loss. But even then we still haven’t exhausted the ambit of care in dharma practice, because it also refers to the care we take in entering into our experience of our inner and outer worlds. In other words, care drives our awareness, or mindfulness. To be careless, by contrast, is not only to be heartless, but also effectively moribund.

Care in this meditative sense of attention can light up our world. It leads to what Batchelor calls ‘the everyday sublime’ – the centrepiece of his account of meditation. He adopts Edmund Burke’s influential notion of the sublime as that which is so beautiful, or so terrifying and perplexing, that it escapes our capacity for representation. And he also joins the early Martin Heidegger in suggesting that everything we touch and that touches us is like this: to the attentive mind everything in our ‘average everydayness’ is potentially sublime too. We don’t have to search for the mystical, with all its insights, behind our everyday experience – it’s right there in that experience. We just have to take care with it and open ourselves to it.

To enter into the everyday sublime is to radically shift perspective from our habitual, jaded, self-interested mindset to one based on both vivid insight into the contingent flux in which we’re actually living, and on nirvanic lucidity. The Buddha used two spatial metaphors to capture this contrast, Batchelor explains: we have to move from our habitual place where all is apparently solid, familiar and predictable, to the (groundless) ground of dharmic insight into the marvel and precariousness of our every momentary experience. To make this shift radically enough leads to an experience of awakening.

Meditation thus aims to cultivate a certain sort of sensibility. In as much as it involves ‘skill’, it is of an ethical and aesthetic sort rather than a technical one, notwithstanding the monastic reduction of meditation to techniques. ‘Meditation is more usefully compared to the ongoing practice of an art than the development of a technical ability,’ Batchelor writes (p. 257).

Actually-existing Buddhisms have mystified key turning points in dharma practice, rendering them as advanced stages in monastic ‘attainment’, and thus remote and unattainable for lay practitioners. Batchelor’s retrieval of the dharma brings them back within reach for any wholehearted practitioner. Nirvana and awakening belong in this category. Both of them constitute accessible, transitory experiences, not permanent promotions to some supposedly higher plane of existence.

But a vital turning point comes before them: stream entry. Rather than an advanced ‘attainment’, the Buddha presented stream entry as the vital moment of conversion to the dharma – when anyone at all hears the heartbeat of the dharma loud and clear, and resolves to place its practice at the centre of her or his life.

All this might sound shocking to someone socialised into an actually-existing Buddhism which enthrones the monk as the model practitioner, and by implication demeans practitioners of the other sex or a lay way of life. But in the Buddha’s time, Batchelor shows, his followers consisted only of ‘adherents’ engaged in the household life, and ‘mendicants’ (beggars) who’d renounced it. As practitioners they were not different in kind, and participated in the same gender-inclusive practice communities (sanghas).

Only with the later monastic institutionalisation of the Buddha’s tradition did the mendicants morph into a privileged all-male professional group, and the adherents into a dependent lay proletariat. In this shift, the monastics made off with the significant spiritual turning points, and presented them (suitably enhanced) as milestones in their own exclusive career path.
In Buddhist history occasional break-outs from monastic domination have occurred, such as in eighth-century India, and in East Asia (including the beginnings of the Korean Sŏn school). Today’s secular Buddhism has some interesting forerunners in this regard (pp. 257-8).


Like the early Chinese dharma adapters, Batchelor reaches for affinities in his own culture with which to characterise and point up aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, so bringing them home to westerners today, and contributing to dharmic development at the same time. Some of those affinities have ancient Greek beginnings more or less contemporaneous with the dharma’s own: pragmatism, scepticism, and stoicism.

Particular modern western schools of thought reissue these affinities or add new ones. The American pragmatists (especially John Dewey, William James and Richard Rorty) lend this ancient school new relevance. They abandon any conception of an absolute truth hiding behind our experienced world; they insist that views and practices be judged according to their positive or negative outcomes, not their compliance with rules or hallowed beliefs, or correspondence with supposed ‘reality’.

On the other side of the Atlantic, various branches of post-metaphysical philosophy, beginning with Nietzsche, come into focus. (Time and again we find the Buddha dismissing metaphysical speculation and views as muddying the waters of spiritual practice!) I’ve already mentioned Heidegger’s contribution, and he brings other phenomenologists into the frame. Earlier in his career, Batchelor compared the work of their fellow travellers, the existentialists, with the dharma. (See especially his 1994 book Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism.)

A perhaps understated debt in the present book is due to modern hermeneutics, especially Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work. When we interpret (including translate) an earlier text, we must avoid the pitfalls of literalism and fundamentalism. Each interpretation is a creative act that will draw on the interpreter’s own experience and knowledge of the world. We might find ourselves drawing out insights and inferences of which the original author was not – or couldn’t have been – aware. As long as we’re not doing violence to the text, we should acknowledge and take responsibility for the creative aspect of interpretation, rather than attribute our own rendering to the original author as if it was what they really wrote or said, or meant to.

Today’s mindfulness movement makes for a somewhat more fraught affinity, not least in its extensions beyond psychotherapy into military training (as in the case of the US Marines) and corporate managerialism. It traces its origins to monastic vipassanā techniques, but lifts them out of the dharmic ethical and communal framework, and thus out of the dharmic tradition as such. Mindfulness meditation doesn’t seek the sensibility mentioned above.

Yet Batchelor defends this movement against traditionalist critics who don’t acknowledge its clinical runs on the board in the quest to diminish human anguish, and who accuse it of ‘dumbing down’ the dharma. ‘This elitist objection fails to recognize that Buddhism has been dumbing itself down ever since it began,’ he comments, in a rare lapse into polemical tone. ‘It is doubtful that those who condemn the mindfulness movement on such grounds would likewise condemn the practice of millions of Buddhists that consists in repeating over and over again the name of the mythical Buddha Amitabha or the title of the Lotus Sutra’ (p. 258).

A secular Buddhism

After Buddhism implicitly suggests that we reverse the choice I mentioned at the outset. We should eschew institutionalisation, as well as the dogmatism, hierarchy, patriarchy, exclusivity and conservatism that it entails. So far, the secular-Buddhism movement has done just that: it exists only as small, informal and inclusive local sanghas, cosmopolitan websites, and most importantly in the form of free-wheeling (mediated and unmediated) conversations.

These are the elements of the culture of awakening that Batchelor seeks to nurture. Having no institutions, it has no orthodoxy either. So nothing stands between it and the kind of fresh take on the dharma tradition that Stephen Batchelor proffers in this book.

That tradition can then return to posing the ur-questions already mentioned: ‘How should I live?’ and ‘What sort of person should I become?’ – rather than the ‘Buddhist’ question: ‘How can I escape the human condition?’

Theravāda Buddhism presents the final goal of practice iconographically in the figure of the arahant – an old monk bent and wizened by a lifetime of monastic austerities, but triumphant, having achieved full awakening and ‘final release’. So he’s gone beyond suffering and won’t have to be reborn again into this human vale of tears.

Mahāyana Buddhism counters this image of ultimate achievement with the far more upbeat image of the bodhisattva: often a radiant and youthful being of either sex (or both), gorgeously bejewelled if scantily clad, playful and potent, one altogether untouched by the vicissitudes of the human realm. In spite of the contrast, both these figures have achieved an individual solution to the woes of the world by leaving it behind.

How might we iconographically represent ultimate achievement in the spirit of secular Buddhism? Intriguingly, Batchelor suggests that the dharma is not, in the final analysis, about individual solutions at all. He builds on the Buddha’s parable of the ancient city (quoted on p. 87) to suggest that the thrust of the latter’s teaching points to a new civilisation in which people stay in the human realm and work much more creatively with its possibilities and difficulties by applying themselves, individually and communally, to the four great dharmic tasks unfurled above.

Another important western affinity jumps onto the screen at this point: that with humanism. And with it a plethora of icons to represent what the dharma is ultimately about: the wise friend, the committed life partner, the good parent, the nurtured child, the prompt emergency worker, the caring physician, the active citizen, the diligent public servant, the dharma teacher, the sangha in session. The reader of this book might be surprised at just how many such iconic figures put in an appearance in the heat-and-dust world of the Pali canon, and didn’t go unnoticed by the Buddha himself.

This book will focus the discussion of secular Buddhism and dharma renewal for years to come. Anyone with an interest in these subjects will need to know it. At 332 pages of text, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an accessible and highly engaging read. For once, the hardback format is not just a plot to raise the price: your copy will get a lot of use, and will need the most resilient cover available.



2 Replies to “A review of After Buddhism – focussing dharma for years to come”

Leon Frampton

Winton – I’ll simply say thank you for this review, I’m in the midst of the book at present!

Because of impermanence, Buddhism has to change to adapt. Like a Bodhisattva who uses “skillful means” to save many people with many different circumstances.

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