Stephen Batchelor’s Gotama: A Dissenter, a Radical, an Iconoclast

Stephen Batchelor has been exploring for quite some time a Buddhism with overt religiosity stripped away. His thoughtful, engaging project reminds me of a similar one undertaken by John Dominic Crossan regarding the historical Jesus. The following passages come from his 2010 book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist; as you read through them, compare and contrast with other Buddhist teachers you’ve read, from Pema Chödrön and the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism) to Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism).

I was beginning to suspect that the Mahayana traditions had, on certain points, lost sight of what the Buddha originally taught. 97

The Buddha dismisses such questions, because to pursue them would not contribute to cultivating the kind of path he teaches. 99
It seemed clear from these texts that the Buddha’s original approach was therapeutic and pragmatic rather than speculative and metaphysical. 100

This story of intrigue, betrayal, and murder locates Gotama in the midst of a highly volatile world in which he was deeply implicated. 108
… his role as a social critic and reformer was one who rejected key religious and philosophical ideas of his time, who ridiculed the priestly caste and its theistic beliefs, who envisioned an entirely new way in which people could lead their individual and communal lives. 109
I have to acknowledge that the vast majority of Buddhists have shown little if any interest in the personality of the man who founded their religion; they have been content to revere a remote and idealized figure. 110

He saw his teaching—the Dhamma—as the template for a civilization. 110

Gotama’s voice is confident, ironic, at times playful, anti-metaphysical, and pragmatic. Over the course of his formative years, he had achieved an articulate and self-assured distance from the doctrines and values of Brahmanic tradition. But exactly how he did this, we don’t know. 124

Gotama’s awakening involved a radical shift of perspective rather than the gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth. 129
… Gotama did not encourage withdrawal to a timeless, mystical now, but an unflinching encounter with the contingent world as it unravels moment to moment. 129

“I shall teach you the Dhamma: when this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.” 131
Siddhattha was a dissenter, a radical, an iconoclast. He wanted nothing to do with the priestly religion of the brahmins. He dismissed its theology as unintelligible, its rituals as pointless, and the social structure it legitimated as unjust. Yet he fully understood its visceral appeal, its addictive hold on the human mind and heart. He refused to play the role of an enlightened guru who demanded uncritical submission before initiating his disciples into doctrines reserved for the spiritual elite. Yet he could not remain silent. There came a point when he had to act. He realized that there must be some people, “those with little dust on their eyes,” who would understand him. So he left his tree in Uruvela and went to Baranasi, where he knew that some of his former companions, a group of five brahmins from Sakiya, were staying in a Deer Park near the village of Isipatana. 135

For the more I pursue my study and practice of the Dhamma, the more distant I feel from Buddhism as an institutional religion. And the closer I get to the life and teaching of Gotama, the further I find myself from the complacent certainties of any Buddhist orthodoxy. 145

Rather than dismiss the self as a fiction, Gotama presented it as a project to be realized….He compared this self to a field: a potentially fertile ground that, when irrigated and tended, enables plants to flourish. He compared it to an arrow: a wooden shaft, metal head, and feather fletching, which, when assembled, can be projected on an unerring course to its target. And he compared the self to a block of wood, something one can fashion and shape into a utensil or roof beam. 152

The aim is not the attainment of nirvana but cultivation of a way of life that allows every aspect of one’s humanity to flourish. Gotama called this way of life an “eightfold” path: i.e. an appropriate vision, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. 154

This was a man who rejected all notion of a transcendent God or Self, openly criticized the system of caste, mocked the beliefs of the brahmins and other religious teachers of his day, and accepted nuns into his community as equals with the monks. 167

He exposed belief in an unknowable God as an irrational claim, unsupported by either experience or reason, basely solely on the assertion of a teacher or a scripture that is reverently repeated. 178

Gotama was not a theist but nor was he an anti-theist. “God” is simply not part of his vocabulary. He was an “atheist” in the literal sense of the term. 179

But Gotama cannot be perfect because he is not God. 186
By embracing his vision, people could also be liberated from the indignity of slavery, winning the respect and support of those they had previously served. 190

… when the chips are down, the only thing you can rely on is whatever values and practices you have managed to integrate into your own life. Neither the Buddha nor the Sangha will be of any help. You are on your own. 219

By insisting that he alone be served the pork and the leftovers buried, Gotama prevented Ananda from eating it. He may therefore have hastened his own death in order that his teaching would survive. 221

“How could it be that something compounded should not pass away?” 223

“Conditioned things break down, tread the path with care!” 224

The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them. 228

Gotama did not intend anyone to succeed him. He envisioned a community that would be governed after his death by an impersonal body of ideas and practices rather than by an enlightened monk. 231


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