You can read here a much-discussed article by the Tibetan Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace and, below, a response by Stephen Batchelor. Alan Wallace attacks writers such as Batchelor who, as he sees it, misrepresent the teachings of the Buddha by stripping off ‘religious’ elements which are not easily compatible with a modernist outlook. Batchelor replies by saying that he is not misrepresenting the Buddha’s teaching, merely adapting it to suit the needs of an audience with a modern, secular outlook.
Good points are made by both. Wallace’s argument is ultimately academic. It’s fine if you want to take and pick from his teachings, but don’t put words in the Buddha’s mouth. Fair enough, and it is true that Batchelor has written some things which put such a modern, no-rebirth, no-devas representation of the Tripitaka as to make those who have studied it themselves feel uneasy. Wallace goes on an unexpected tangent about atheism leading to the travesties of communism. The salient point is, however – what’s so great about stripping away ‘religion’ anyway? Batchelor’s response is that he, like early Chinese Buddhists who re-interpreted Indian Buddhism in the language and culture of Taoism, is performing an important role in seeking ways to adapt Buddhism to a new culture. And, indeed, he does this very well.
Personally, I find Batchelor’s attempts towards a Buddhism which is creative, not socially constrictive and not dogmatic a breath of fresh air, as I’m sure they do to many Buddhists like myself with an outlook that tends more towards scientific positivism. However, I feel that his writings can be rather dismissive of certain beliefs and may perhaps pander to modern dogma rather than provoke it. I myself when reading some of his books have felt some of the enjoyment one feels in identifying oneself as the ‘rational’ Us as opposed to the backward, gullible, superstitious Them. I wonder if what Wallace is getting at when he talks about what went wrong with Communism and Nazism is that their supposedly ‘rationalist’ outlook was, rather than being just plain wrong, too narrow. Though they were rational, it was an uncompassionate rationalism. Rather than dismiss religious and traditional interpretations as backward, surely a more compassionate and indeed more interesting approach, is to ask ‘Why do they believe this?’, ‘What does this mean for them?’ ’What does this give them?’ By all means, we should can approach these questions rationally, but to simply ignore them risks again adopting an outlook which is rational, but a rationality which has not broadened the scope of its inquiry and the breadth of what it is prepared to admit as ‘truth’ to encompass the full breadth of human experience, emotion and need. I enjoy Batchelor’s books immensely, but worry that they tend more towards ‘this is so,’ rather than what I feel is the more appropriate response of – as I learnt from Batchelor himself on a retreat: ‘What is this?’