Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Great Buddhist Debate

Monks of Tharpa Choeling circa 1978 behind Venerable Abbot Geshe Tamdrin Rabten (with sunglasses). Left-to-right: Claude Grenier, Stephen Schettini, Christopher Pace, Laurence Williamson, Brian Grabia, Arnold Possick, Dominique Monmayeul, Stephen Batchelor, Helmut Gassner, Eckart Zabel, Bruno Le Guevel, Alan Wallace, Geshe Tamdrin Rabten, Geshe Jhampa Lhodro, Geshe Gendun Zangpo, Elio Guarisco and Gen Lo Norbu on the occasion of the novice ordination of Laurence, Dominique and Eckart.
They could be spiritual twins. Both went to Dharamsala, India, in the early 1970s to study at the Tibetan Works & Archives after it was established by the Dalai Lama, and both ordained as monks.  B. Alan Wallace from Pasadena, the son of a professor at a Baptist seminary, was three years older than Stephen Batchelor who was born in Scotland and raised by a single mother in a London suburb.  Both were sent by the Dalai Lamai to Switzerland to study with Geshé Rabten, first at the Tibet Institute Rikon, then located at Le Mont-Pèlerin, and later at the Swiss hamlet of Schwendi where they helped the contemplative Tibetan monk establish Tharpa Choeling (now Rabten Choeling).  Joining them there was Stephen Schettini, who two years ago published a memoir, The Novice, with the subtitle "Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit, and What I Learned." (This photo is borrowed from Schettini's web site.)

Wallace and Batchelor have become proponents of two seemingly diametrically opposed views of Buddhism.  Wallace represents the traditionalists, and Batchelor the secularists, and their views were aired in a sometimes contentious exchange during the last year in the pages of Mandala, a quarterly published by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) which follows the Buddhist tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa of Tibet as taught by FPMT's founder, Lama Thubten Yeshe.  Wallace began with "Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist," and Batchelor responded with "An Open Letter to B. Alan Wallace."  Schettinni weighed in with his own reminiscences of the two one-time friends with "A Old Story of Faith and Doubt."  Buddhist blogger Ted Meissner has also made extensive comments on the Speculative Non-Buddhist blog.  This is no tempest in a tea pot, but a serious discussion of fundamental differences between two prominent Western Buddhists that raises question about whether all "buddhisms" can fit under the same big tent.

Wallace is not subtle, and comes out with both guns blazing.  Calling Batchelor's opinions in numerous books "ridiculous," "groundless speculation" and even "illegitimate," he writes that his old colleague was "recreating Buddhism to conform to his current views" despite the "consensus by professional scholars and contemplatives throughout history" and ignoring the "most compelling evidence of what the Buddha taught."  Wallace takes aim at Batchelor ideas presented in Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997) and most recently in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (2010), which show his "strong antipathy toward religion and religious institutions" and his "blind acceptance of materialist assumptions about consciousness."  Wallace pulls out his Weapons of Mass Destruction and links this "scientific materialism" with "the unspeakable tragedy of communist regimes' attempts to annihilate Buddhism from the face of the earth."  (Granted, he piggybacks this on a critique of atheist Sam Harris's curious support of Buddhism which is connected to similar allegations against religion).

The real target of Wallace's over-the-top ire is undoubtably Batchelor's denial of rebirth and karma.  Wallace believes rebirth was central to the Buddha's teaching, a unique position for his time. Batchelor thinks it was a prevailing belief in the Indian world view and that the Buddha neither affirmed nor denied it, but rather treated it as irrelevant.  Wallace thinks his old comrade thus takes the "illegitimate option 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."  An experience of the Buddha's wisdom can be accessed through meditation, Wallace believes, and criticizes Batchelor's account which he says "describes the experiences of those who have failed to calm the restlessness and lethargy of their own minds through the practice of samadhi, and failed to realize emptiness or transcend language and concepts through the practice of vipashyana."

Near the end of his diatribe, Wallace calls Batchelor and Harris "both decent, well-intentioned men," but says their writings are may be regarded as "near enemies" of the true Buddhist virtues as described by the commentator Buddhaghosa: loving-kindness, compassion, emphathetic joy, and equanimity.  Their view of the Buddha's teaching are "false facsimiles of all those that have been handed down reverently from one generation to the next since the time of the Buddha."

Batchelor's response is more measured and collegial.  He begins by apologizing for "any offence I might inadvertently have caused you and others through my writing."  He recognizes that his views might "conflict with Buddhist orthodoxy" and might seem "puzzling, objectionable and even heretical to followers of traditional Buddhist schools." His students, however, have included many frusted by traditional forms of Buddhism who find themselves confronted with a "Church-like institution that requires unconditional allegiance to a teacher and acceptance of a non-negotiable set of doctrinal beliefs."  Batchelor writes that he left the Tibetan monastery where they were colleagues because "I could no longer in good faith accept certain traditional beliefs," and went to Korean to study as a monk in the Zen tradition" which he found "refreshing and liberating"

As for rebirth, "the Buddha would have regarded this entire argument as being beside the point."  Batchelor continues to study the Pali Canon, an authority on which both former monks agree, but they come to different conclusions about the meaning of suttas based on different selection and interpretation.  Both cite the Kalama Sutta.  Batchelor add that "this is the only text I know of in the Pali Canon where the Buddha explicitly states that the practice of the Dharma is valid and worthwhile 'even if there is no hereafter and there are no fruits of actions good or ill.' This is the closest he comes to an agnostic position on the subject."  He notes also that he and Wallace both cite passages describing the Buddha's awakening. "It is hardly surprising that you select a Pali text that describes it in terms of remembering past lives, while I prefer to cite the accounts that don't."

Batchelor's view of the intractability of language is particularly galling to Wallace who quotes him as saying: "We can no more step out of language and imagination than we can step out of our bodies."  This contradicts Wallace's belief that experiences that confirm his traditional view are gained through meditation and practice, outside of our linguistic cages.  Batchelor sees this as an attempt to claim privileged insight into the texts.
The Pali canon might be the most uncontested record of what the Buddha taught, but that doesn't mean it speaks in a single, unambiguous voice.  One hears multiple voices, some apparently contradicting others.  In part, this is because the Buddha taught dialogically, address the needs of different audiences, rather than imposing a single one-size-fits-all doctrine.  And it is precisely this diversity, I feel that has allowed for different forms of the Dharma to evolve and flourish.
I can think of no better words for a manifesto of "Big Tent Buddhism."

Schettini, the ex-novice, has a unique perspective.  "Alan and Stephen were both elder monks and teachers in our little community, and so role models to the rest of us."  The two shared close quarters but differed in temperament.  He says Batchelor "put on an air of nonchalance" while Wallace seemed "uncomfortable in his skin."  Wallace is "a loyal traditionalist and authority figure" who feels "both qualified and responsible to state what is acceptable and what is not."  On the other hand, Batchelor "is more concerned about the plausibility of the teachings ascribed to the Buddha than dependent on whether or not he actually taught them."  The crux of the difference, according to Schettini, is that "what to Alan is historical fact is to Stephen debatable."  Batchelor's rewriting of history and reconstruction of what's been "true" for traditional Buddhists "undermines the august pretentions of scholarship and tradition and infuriates Alan."

What's particularly troubling to Schettini about the exchange of his elder monks is that "Alan questions Stephen's integrity.  That's not debate; it's personal." Wallace's tone is unfriendly and rude, treating him as an upstart while claiming to be a paragon of correctness.  "Alan sees himself as representative of the tradition in a way that Stephen is not...I think that icons are important fixtures in the Dharma landscape and so are iconoclasts."  Wallace's screed raises two important questions for Schettini:  Are these teachings and people really sacred?  Is Alan trying to keep Buddhism pure? He says Buddhism a religion for Wallace, and therefore sacred, but not for Batchelor.  And the former novice agrees with Batchelor that purity is impossible.  "Buddhism is a construct."  Can Western Buddhism not handle diversity? he asks.  As for himself, "I lost faith in the scholarly illusion of the straight and narrow...I don't know exactly what the Buddha taught.  I wasn't there."

I'm not sure what points each settled in the great debate between the traditionalist and the secular incarnations of Buddhism.  Traditionalists like Wallace abound; he publishes frequently, is leading a retreat in Phuket as I write, and speaks and teaches his version of the dhamma around the globe.  Batchelor, on the other hand, has spawned a generation of followers with his doubts about purity and the "true" tradition, gathering a new generation of hardcore, pragmatic and secular Buddhists to his orbit.  Can they all hang together in today's "Big Tent Buddhism"?


Sam said...

Splits and fusions, splits and religion as in's the stuff of life...some call it dialectics, but I've a feeling my wife would say "You think too much" :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the Zen story in which a dialogue between a master and student proceeds the following way:

Student: "What happens when you die?"
Master: "I don't know."
Student: "What? You're a Zen master!"
Master: "But not a dead one!"

Anonymous said...

From what I have read, Wallace also seems to be somewhat anxious about the extremely rapid advance of neuroscience. He has launched a number of underhanded tirades against psychiatric medication and insists on a bizarre distinction between 'mental and neurological' disorders, perhaps in the fear that if new interventions for mental health and wellness are proven to be effective - and there is strong evidence that they are - it could pose a serious challenge to the present framework of Buddhist practice. Who is going to spend tens of thousands of hours developing shamatha if something else comes along that can do the job better? So perhaps he has retrenched in his traditionalist views even more strongly as a result.