What Bhikkhu Analayo got wrong: a review of ‘Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions’

Introduction

It is deeply disappointing when a scholar and teacher who has significantly contributed to our understanding of the key texts of Early Buddhism so completely misinterprets the objectives and practices of secular Buddhism, a very recent trend in the 2500 year history of Buddhism.

Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions

Bhikkhu Analayo’s prolific writings on a whole range of topics, in particular, his masterful analysis and explication of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, have helped practitioners to gain a better understanding of core Buddhist insights as well as develop and enrich their meditative practice.

My spouse recently participated in a Barre Center for Buddhist Studies online course on Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation taught by Bhikkhu Analayo, which is based on his book, Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: A Practice Guide . She found the course to be extremely challenging and helpful in deepening her approach to mindfulness meditation.

Unfortunately, while the overall purpose of Bhikkhu Analayo’s new book, Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions: A Historical Perspective , is well-intended, his treatment of superiority conceit in Buddhist traditions – i.e. the tendency of Buddhists to devalue other Buddhists by asserting a privileged or superior point of view – is deeply flawed in two respects. First, Bhikkhu Analayo fails to identify what is perhaps the root cause of superiority conceits in Buddhism. Second, his analysis of a purported superiority conceit in secular Buddhism mischaracterizes the writings of Stephen Batchelor and ignores the ideas and practices of contemporary secular Buddhists.

The missing conceit

Bhikkhu Analayo identifies four superiority conceits in Buddhism: the deeply-entrenched sexism which devalues the role of women in sanghas; the characterization of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism as inferior by Mahāyāna Buddhists; the Theravādin claim that their central doctrines reflect the teachings of the original Buddha; and the secular Buddhist assumption that all traditional forms of Buddhism are inferior to this new perspective.

Based on his analysis of the early Buddhist teachings found in the Pāli Canon and their parallels in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan sources, Bhikkhu Analayo makes a strong case that there is no justification for the first three conceits in Early Buddhism. He argues that ‘the various strands of negativity toward women that emerge….are not in conformity with the early teachings’ (p. 38). Similarly, when Mahāyāna Buddhists use the term ‘Hīnayāna’ to describe Buddhists who subscribe to Theravāda lineages as practicing an inferior form of Buddhism, this usage ‘has its origins in polemics and lacks a grounding in the historical reality of Indian Buddhism’ (p. 71). And finally, Theravāda Buddhism has its own conceit: the notion that it represents the original teachings of the Buddha. In fact, ‘comparative study shows that Pāli discourses are just as prone to reflect later ideas as are discourses of other transmission images’ (p. 101).

All this is good, and important to say as the tendency toward a superiority conceit is pervasive in Buddhism. Yet, Bhikkhu Analayo fails to recognize perhaps the most important factor which has led to a variety of superiority conceits in Buddhism: the view that monastic leaders and monks have a privileged access to the ultimate truths of human beings and reality.

As Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins have argued, after the death of Gotama, the historical Buddha, the adherents of his teachings – monks in monastic orders – took his pragmatic and ethical insights for how to live a flourishing life and transformed them into a metaphysical system based on so-called ‘truths’ about the world. This metaphysical turn included a notion that was not present in Gotama’s own teachings: the ‘two truths’ doctrine:

  • conventional truths which correspond to our everyday experiences and our need to function in the world; and
  • absolute truths which correspond with the ultimate nature of reality.

Only the monastics and religious leaders of the various lineages had supposedly privileged access to absolute knowledge of an ultimate reality. Their possession of absolute truths thus made them superior to their lay followers not just because of their unique knowledge, but by giving them the authority to determine the correct views and practices which lay people must follow. The development of a clerical elite as new spiritual paths have become institutionalized has of course occurred in other religions, such as the Abrahamic theistic religions.

But as different lineages and trends within Buddhism inevitably developed, this posed a problem. For if each lineage claims possession of the absolute truths which correspond to an ultimate reality, how do we know which lineage holds the correct view? How do we know which lineage has the practices which embody these truths and can lead to the complete cessation of suffering? In this context, it is natural that the monastic leaders and scholars of each lineage would claim that they possessed the correct understanding of reality and that others did not, that they were superior in the sense of having a unique access to the absolute truths.

While monastics have played a crucial role in preserving and developing Gotama’s teachings, the ascendance of monastic leaders and institutions thus went hand in hand with the formation of rigid orthodoxies and competing claims to having the most correct, the superior understanding, of Gotama’s teachings. This process also had a negative impact on the development of sanghas. The earliest sanghas, which tended to be more egalitarian, were transformed into hierarchical, top-down structures in which monastic leaders had complete authority.

I would argue that the superiority conceits which Bhikkhu Analayo discusses in the book are primarily rooted in the male-dominated, hierarchical monastic institutions which are integral to traditional forms of Buddhism. Bhikkhu Analayo’s failure to recognize this is a major flaw in his book.

What secular Buddhism are we talking about?

I found it quite surprising that Bhikkhu Analayo would include secular Buddhism in his discussion of superiority conceits in Buddhism. After all, the other three superiority conceits – gender discrimination, Mahāyāna Buddhists’ denigration of Hīnayāna Buddhism, and the Theravādin claim to represent the ‘original’ teachings – are historical trends which have profoundly shaped the development of Buddhism over the last 2000 years. On the other hand, secular Buddhism has only emerged in the last twenty years or so and was not even recognized as a separate trend until, independently of each other, Stephen Batchelor and Ted Meissner, the Executive Director of the American-based Secular Buddhist Association (SBA), began using that term to characterize a secular approach to the dharma. Ted’s podcast, the Secular Buddhist, was launched on May 7, 2009.

Because secular Buddhism is such a new phenomenon, one would think that Bhikkhu Analayo would be cautious in characterizing this trend while attempting to gain an understanding of how secular Buddhism is actually developing. Instead, he limits his discussion of secular Buddhism to the writings of one person – Stephen Batchelor – because he sees Stephen ‘as the foundational proponent of Secular Buddhism’ (p. 105). He further limits his discussion by focusing only on how Stephen’s interpretation of Gotama’s teachings is consistent with his (Bhikkhu Analayo’s) own understanding of Early Buddhist texts. The result is effectively a ‘hatchet job’ which not only mischaracterizes Stephen’s views but totally ignores the ideas and practices of contemporary secular Buddhists.

Mischaracterizing Stephen Batchelor

I am not a scholar in Early Buddhist texts so I can’t assess Bhikkhu Analayo’s claim that Stephen has misinterpreted important aspects of Early Buddhism, including the role of monasticism, the structure of sanghas, the nature of nirvana, rebirth, etc. Bhikkhu Analayo’s basic point is that Stephen is cherry picking  from Early Buddhist texts and that his interpretation is thus not consistent with the essential elements of the teachings. Bhikkhu Analayo asserts that a proper interpretation of Early Buddhist texts does not support a secular Buddhist perspective.

Stephen has had many discussions on this topic with Buddhists from traditional lineages. For the purpose of this article, what’s essential to note is that Stephen has never claimed to provide the definitive account of Early Buddhist texts nor has he argued that his secular interpretation is the superior version, in the sense of more closely capturing the truths of Buddhism. Instead, Stephen been quite clear that he developed his interpretation as part of his effort to discover the unique aspects of Gotama’s teachings which are relevant to us today. Stephen’s engagement with the Early Buddhist texts is aimed at developing an approach which facilitates individual transformation and a ‘culture of awakening’ in this life.

Thus, to take one of the teachings which Bhikkhu Analayo discusses in his critique of Stephen’s approach, the Parable of the City , Stephen has interpreted the sutta as offering a vision of how individual transformation in the context of the dharmic path is integrally connected to a ‘culture of awakening,’ a transformation of cultural and social relations. Stephen argues that the parable can thus be interpreted in secular terms. Bhikkhu Analayo disagrees, asserting that ‘….the central element in the parable of the ancient city to be the Buddha’s discovery of a path of awakening….’ (p.117).

So, who is right? Well, if one believes that there is a correct or superior form of Buddhism which represents the truths of Gotama’s teachings, then this is relevant question. But if, like Stephen and many other secular Buddhists, you reject that approach and instead see Gotama’s teachings as an ethical, pragmatic guide to life, then the key question is whether a particular interpretation of the text is helpful in facilitating human flourishing at an individual level as well as within the social sphere.

The latter, secular approach does not denigrate traditional views or interpretations; it does not claim that a secular approach is superior. Far from it. In his 2015 book After Buddhism Stephen offered ten theses of secular dharma. #6 says the following:

The practitioner honors the dharma teachings that have been passed down through different traditions while seeking to enact them creatively in ways appropriate to the world as it is now. (p. 321)

Where is the superiority conceit among secular Buddhist practitioners today?

This same stance toward traditional versions of Buddhism is widespread among secular Buddhists today.

For example, the Secular Buddhist Association has from the beginning of its formation in 2012 emphasized its deep appreciation for the variety of views and practices among traditional lineages. On their website, there is a page which has their guiding principles and values, including:

Secular Buddhism values the texts (Suttas and Sutras) of various forms of Buddhism as tools for study, learning, and practice. (And we hold gratitude to those who were integral to preserving and transmitting those Suttas and Sutras from their oral origins to the present-day written forms – monastics and others in Asia and its Diaspora.)

Secular Buddhism values individual preference and creativity on the forms of practice appropriate to them.

Similarly, since the Secular Buddhist Network website was founded in October 2019. we have rejected a sectarian approach based on a superiority conceit. Our aim has been to foster dialogue and a critical examination of issues related to secular dharma without trying to impose some new orthodoxy. In a recent article I argued that in discussing traditional and secular forms of Buddhism we need to take a position of ‘metaphysical humility’:

While I think that a secular approach is more appropriate because it facilitates human flourishing in this life, I am taking that position without asserting that, in some universal or objective sense, secular Buddhism is better than traditional forms of Buddhism. I agree with Seth Zuihō Segall who, in his book Buddhism and Human Flourishing,  argued that certain metaphysical issues may never be resolved and that it’s best to be open-minded and agnostic with respect to them; we need, in short, to assume a stance of ‘metaphysical humility.’

In the many discussions I’ve had with secular Buddhists or those interested in a secular approach, I have rarely encountered the view that secular Buddhism is somehow more correct or represents the truth better than other approaches. Many secular Buddhists started their practice in traditional lineages and still have a strong appreciation for the ideas and practices of those lineages. They come to secular Buddhism with a spirit of questioning and discovery that is very far from the superiority conceit that Bhikkhu Analayo has tried to attach to secular Buddhism.

It would have been preferable if Bhikkhu Analayo had attempted to learn about secular Buddhism as it is ‘on the ground’. Then, he could have engaged in a serious discussion with this approach instead of the simplistic rejection which is found in his book.


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COMMENTS

10 Replies to “What Bhikkhu Analayo got wrong: a review of ‘Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions’”

Ted Meissner

I would like to add that the SBA Guiding Principles is a perfect example of that lack of conceit in another way: it gets revised with new understandings and in response to what is seen in the world, while respecting heritage Buddhism. Credit to our Community Director, Jennifer Hawkins, for taking that on — much of that particular quote comes from her.

Winton Higgins

Thanks are due to Mike Slott for his pointed refutation of Bhikkhu Analayo’s critique of secular Buddhism as a ‘superiority conceit in a Buddhist tradition’ to be compared, say, with Mahayanists’ condescension towards ‘the little vehicle’ as represented by the Theravada . Let me make three quick points in addition to Mike’s.
First, secular Buddhist writers are at pains to disavow any claim that it is a tradition at all. It has no orthodoxy or authoritative institutions; on the contrary, it expresses a trend in rendering and practising the dharma in ways that make it accessible, inspiring and serviceable to ethnic westerners in the first instance. It does so in the service of the Buddha’s tradition as a whole, and isn’t interested in scoring point against (let alone claiming superiority over) non-western traditions.
Second, the modern revival of hermeneutics in the hands of Hans-Georg Gadamer and others renders meaningless all sectarian claims to own the ‘true’ interpretation of the Pali (or any other) canon irrespective of time and place. Stephen Batchelor – Analayo’s secular-Buddhist bête noire – simply does his hermeneutic duty in advancing interpretations of chosen suttas that render them valuable to modern westerners without doing violence to the received text. The old Asian traditions performed much the same function, of interpreting their canons in ways that served the contemporary interests of their institutions.
Third, when it comes to interpretation and conceit, institutions are precisely the problem. They are the bearers of superiority conceits. And whether the institutions in question are specific, such as Theravadin monasticism, or general ones like patriarchy, they all bend the dharma and its practice out of shape. The former sets up an oppressive monastic/lay binary that perpetuates relationships of domination and subordination among practitioners. While the patriarchy that suffuse all historic Buddhist institutions marginalises and excludes women. The dharma then gets interpreted so as to legitimate these distortions. Secular Buddhism has no authoritative institutions and so avoids these distortions. Of course its small local sanghas still have to take great care to keep them out – there is no place for complacency (let alone conceit) when it comes to power-play and misogyny, which blight both western and non-western cultures.

Kevin Knox

While I’m an admirer of this journal and of much secular Buddhist writing I don’t think it does Anālayo’s critique justice.

To begin at the beginning, nowhere in the book does Anālayo assert views that support your comment that “the most important factor which has led to a variety of superiority conceits in Buddhism: the view that monastic leaders and monks have a privileged access to the ultimate truths of human beings and reality.”

Monastics have been the holders of the teachings for 2600 years. They may or may not have had “privileged access to the ultimate truths of human beings and reality” but they memorized and then wrote down the texts and without them no one – lay or monastic – would have anything to study or practice. That’s not “conceit” – it’s simple fact.

Meanwhile “two truths” doctrine is a much later Mahāyāna development which has nothing to do with the suttas or Anālayo’s arly Buddhist perspective. It’s disingenuous – or flat-out wrong, if you prefer – to say that monastics “took his [the Buddha’s] pragmatic and ethical insights for how to live a flourishing life and transformed them into a metaphysical system when those teachings from the outset were about becoming liberated from rebirth, not secular flourishing. The “transformation” (not to mention appropriation and in Batchelor’s case willful mistranslation) are all on the secular side.

Anālayo clearly and convincingly refutes your (and Batchelor’s) contention that monasticism was somehow a later development or that the Buddha envisioned an egalitarian community.

“For example, a discourse reports the Buddha quite explicitly stating that he considered his monastic disciples to be superior and more worthy of his attention than his lay disciples ( Bodhi, Connected Discourses, p. 1339)….This is hardly a vision of an egalitarian community. Such a suggestion appears to confuse soteriological inclusiveness with social hierarchy, promoting a notion of egalitarianism, fashionable in contemporary secular circles, onto early Buddhism.” (p.116).

The rest of this rather muddled review completely sidesteps the key points Anālayo makes about Batchelor’s misrepresentations of the Buddha’s key teachings, starting with his revisionist takes on Māra (p. 118-119) Awakening (p. 121) and Nirvana (p. 122).

Anālayo’s discussion of Batchelor’s thoroughgoing misunderstanding of “not self” and rebirth (p.123-126) and his topsy-turvy recasting of the 4 Noble Truths (p. 126-130) aren’t even mentioned. Last but certainly not least we come to the discussion of methodology and fidelity to basic scholarly standards (p. 134-137), including Batchelor’s numerous and well-known mistranslations of the suttas in service of his decade’s long project of remaking the Buddha in his own image.

“The correctness of the translation of the text relied on for actual practice is crucial. This is not something of concern only to detached philologists. It is of course open to anyone to develop an existential dialog with the texts for personal edification. But to use that as an excuse for publishing inaccurate translations is irresponsible and contrary to the basics of scholarly procedure.

In sum, due to intentionally making bias the main methodology for reading texts, ignoring published criticism of obvious misinterpretations, and advocating that correct translation does not matter, it seems that Stephen Batchelor should be taken at his word: he should not be considered a scholar. His writings then perhaps could be seen as a remarkable illustration of Western superiority conceit.” (p. 136-137).

Far from being a “hatchet job,” Anālayo’s pointed criticisms are a long-overdue corrective to Batchelor’s wildly-popular and transparently self-serving watering down of the Dhamma. Most if not all of the key points made in this chapter have been made by scholars for years but in academic journals and online sites like suttacentral that aren’t typically requented by lay practitioners. So many prominent Western vipassana teachers and students have found Batchelor’s views deeply resonant and consolatory precisely because they support using Buddhism purely for the purpose of having a smoother ride through samsara that Anālayo’s pointed prose comes as a salutary shock – a scholarly version of the four heavenly messengers, if you will.

I’ll end with this quote from another totally unrelated teacher’s review of Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist:

“The autobiographical musings of a Westerner who first became a Tibetan monk, then a Korean Zen monk, and ended up as a secular Buddhist. This book is a very useful critique of the shortcomings of institutional and religious Buddhism. It, and his “Buddhism Without Beliefs,” enunciate an agnostic alternative to Buddhist religiosity that is well worth adopting. The author’s re-interpretation of the traditional story of the Buddha’s life is especially fascinating and helpful.

There are many good reasons to read this book. It is an important work, and is very strongly recommended. But there is one important caveat: Batchelor’s disappointment and lack of personal fulfillment have led him to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because he has not been able to achieve the ultimate goals of the Buddhadharma himself, he has seriously underestimated the validity and attainability of those goals.

It does not occur to him that, not only have the Dharma teachings been grossly distorted through time, but so have the meditation practices that once led uncountable numbers to personal transformation and Awakening. A “Christian Atheist” is someone who accepts and values the teachings of Jesus, but doesn’t believe that Jesus is God or has the power of salvation. As a “Buddhist Atheist,” the author sees Buddha’s teachings as a valuable path to better living and social change, but not as a means to personal spiritual transformation or any transcendent Awakening. In the end, his disillusionment and cynicism show through quite clearly.” (John Yates)

Dhivan

Like Kevin Knox, I am not myself connected with the secular Buddhist network, rather I am a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. I’d like to add to Kevin’s points, with which I agree, with the observation that Mike Slott’s review includes a quite astonishing misunderstanding of the two truths teaching (which actually originates in Abhidharma before being re-formulated in Mahāyāna philosophy). It is easy to show how the distinction of the two truths has its origins in early Buddhist texts (see John Buescher, Echoes From An Empty Sky). Mike Slott’s argument appears to involve firstly portraying Asian Buddhism as misunderstanding the Dharma, and then saying that secular Buddhism corrects that misunderstanding. If that isn’t a superiority conceit, in just the way Anālayo diagnoses, what is? It appears to be quite unconscious on Mike Slott’s part. As I read Anālayo’s book, he does not have any problem with secular Buddhism per se, only with how Stephen Batchelor levels criticisms of Asian Buddhism (of the sort Mike Slott rehearses about the two truths) which in many cases should be described as neo-colonialist misunderstandings.

Joseph Nunez

I was disappointed reading about his belief in rebirth.
Worse, some of the particular examples he gave to bolster that belief.
Nonetheless, his book
“Mindfully Facing Disease and Death” is compelling.

Anne-Laure Brousseau

An aside: I must say I took a wide Rabelaisian view of Bhikkhu Analayo’s pronouncement on egalitarianism (“…fashionable in contemporary secular circles…”). Reading it again in Kevin Knox’s comment, again the great Rabelais comes to mind, who wrote his greatest works by dictation during meals.

Bhante S. Dhammika

I found it interesting that Analayo neglected to mention another glaring conceit in Buddhism, that of monks towards the laity. Male laity get more attention than women in both the Tipitaka and in Buddhism as is practiced, but not much more. When Anathapindaka was lying on his death-bed, Sariputta spoke to him about the value of not clinging to form, feeling, etc., a teaching that was new to the faithful, long-time upasaka. He asked why he had never heard such ideas before and Sariputta replied, “Such Dhamma talk is not [usually] given to lay people, it is [usually] only given to monks.” Such an attitude continues to be widespread.

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Dear Bhante S Dhammika,

Your comment prompted me to revisit Chapter IV in Superiority Conceit, especially Section 4 titled “Monasticism.” It is not surprising that Bhikkhu Analayo neglected to mention the superiority conceit of many monastics towards the laity, given his belief that monastic entitlement to that superiority is based in scripture. He begins Section 4 by situating Stephen Batchelor’s writings “…in line with a general tendency among Secular Buddhists of extolling lay practice and being at times somewhat dismissive about monasticism…”(105). He legitimizes monastic superiority conceit over the laity based on two similes which illustrate that “…the Buddha will give precedence to monastic disciples over lay disciples when dispensing his teachings” (I’m not clear about the source of the similes, but they may be from the translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya: 2000, 1339). (Analayo,106)

If I’ve understood correctly, Analayo argues against Batchelor’s reading of the early Buddhist community as egalitarian by affirming that the spiritual ideal of early Buddhism was hierarchical and, more specifically, that non-egalitarianism issued from the word of the Buddha:

“The idea that the Buddha envisioned an egalitarian community does not reflect the early texts particularly well. For example, a discourse reports the Buddha quite explicitly stating that he considered his monastic disciples to be superior and more worthy of his attention than his lay disciples” (translated by Bodhi, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya: 2000, 1339). (Analayo,106)

This wasn’t the pushback I expected, but nonetheless elucidates for me why there may be a longstanding and widespread attitude of entitlement among monastics to control the teachings, as disclosed to Anathapindaka on his death-bed. This attitude is further justified in Analayo’s discussion of the practice of taking refuge:

“…the three refuges that ensure the preservation of Buddhism are the Buddha (who of course lived the life of a monastic himself), his teachings, and the community of his monastic disciples. (107, emphasis on “monastic’ in the original)

I believe Analayo is emphasizing here that refuge is to be taken in the monastic Sangha (bhikkhusaṅgha) , which is not to be equated or confused with the fourfold sangha.

I can only observe that if Analayo’s presentation is correct, it’s unsurprising that Batchelor approached this from a radically different sense of community possible in the modern, secular sphere of life.

Bhante S. Dhammika

Dear Anne, the problem may have been with the monks, or at least some of them, rather than the Buddha himself. He frequently engaged in dialogue, sometimes on profound aspects of the Dhamma, with the laity, including individuals such as Pañcakanga [a carpenter], Sunīta [a sweeper], Pessa and Kesi, [both animal trainers], all presumably from the lower rungs of society. At Anguttara III,122 he said that whomever he taught, even if it was a humble beggar or a hunter, he would do it carefully and respectfully.

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Dear Bhante S Dhammika,
Those sound like interesting dialogues. I’ll look them up and read. Many thanks

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