A Commentary on Stephen Batchelor’s Paper A Secular Buddhist


Stephen Batchelor

A Paper by Stephen Batchelor – written in black type with comments in italics by secular Buddhist John Baxter                                                                                                                     1.I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a

nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms.

As a secular Buddhist my practice is concerned with responding as sincerely and

urgently as possible to the suffering of life in this world, in this century (our

saeculum) where we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves

later. Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the

moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the

eightfold path here on earth.


1.Without having labelled myself one I see from meeting and reading Stephen that I am and have always been a “secular buddhist” since turning to the Buddha Way in 85. As a post-Chistian atheist who rejected all forms of supernaturalism I have never been prepared to accept anything in the tradition that has seemed to me superstitious or irrational.  Married with a family I have also been a supporter of the Theravada monastic community and have learnt much through their teaching and example. (Ajahn Sumedho and Amaravati)


1.My aim has been to find what makes for a happy, fulfilled good life right here and now rather than some distant “enlightenment” in some mythical future individual identity. This involves reflecting on and dealing with the pressures and inclinations, internal and external, which can make life tough or happy. In attempting to do this I have found Gotama’s teaching and the pattern of how to practice (meditation and the 5 precepts) that he has passed on Buddhists enlightening and compelling.


  1. 1.       I also have found that as an organised religion all the Buddhist traditions, as with Christianity, contain what I consider to be flawed elements and implausible or positively wrong teachings. I do not however find that the Buddhist tradition I have met expects mindless obedience to any set of beliefs, the emphasis being on practice.


  1. 2.       I see enlightenment or awakening as a progressive process.  Some of us seem naturally more insightful, compassionate and aware than others, while others, be it nature or nurture, find life and dealing with our own natures more difficult. We all however are capable of becoming more enlightened, aware and awake through the practice of mindfulness meditation, critical rational thinking and compassionate and responsible behaviour. In the first place this involves recognising for oneself the wisdom of basing one’s moral behaviour on the Five Precepts which lead on to the Eightfold Path. (The precepts are recognised in both Mahayana and Theravada traditions as warnings against the consequences of harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Undertaking these precepts in a positive spirit is part of lay Buddhist initiation and ongoing practice and they also are the moral basis of monastic practice. However for lay ie those engaged in work and family life, they are not regarded as moral imperatives, but as precepts for reflection on key areas of life. Monastics undertake to act upon them in strictly prescribed ways.)
  2. 3.       I doubt however, that anyone however wise and impressive, including Gotama, Yeshua or Muhammad, has ever been “perfectly enlightened”, omniscient, infallible – or totally without sin or moral imperfection, and that also goes for the communities they have founded.  


  1. Given what is known about the biological evolution of human beings, the emergence of self-awareness and language, the sublime complexity of the brain, and the embeddedness of such creatures in the fragile biosphere that envelops this planet, I cannot understand how after physical death there can be continuity of any personal consciousness or self, propelled by the unrelenting force of acts (karma) committed in this or previous lives.


  1. 5.       I agree about the wonder of our evolution but I think I go further. I see behind the universal religious assertions that there are forms of life after death and the assertions that we are the possessors of a non-physical immortal soul an attempt to recognise and explain our instinctive recognition that we possess a consciousness which is awe inspiring and radically different from that we see in any other species.  


  1. 6.       This belief however I think correctly recognises that to simply regard the death of an individual as  “the end” is inadequate.  This is because as reflectively aware culture carrying persons we are uniquely interdependent. It is not only that we live on in each other. Our consciousness is in essence socially constructed, consisting of our brains learning from and being in relationship to other brains past and present while interacting with other living beings and the world of which we are a dependent part.


  1. 7.       Our physical and cultural evolution over millennia has given us an incredible level of awareness of ourselves and of the universe. When each brain dies the constituents that gave it reflective awareness live on in those we have known and influenced. (This paper for example is not just the work of two people – Stephen and John – but of all those who have influenced our thinking over our life-times and over millennia – going back to those who developed the language and concepts we have been using to communicate.)


  1.  For many –perhaps most–of my co-religionists, this admission might lead them to ask: “Why, then, if you don’t believe such things, do you still call yourself a ‘Buddhist’?”


  1. 9.       My answer is that I consider that in Gotama’s teaching on anatta, not self, he recognised the constituents of consciousness (in his analysis of the  five skandhas) and pointed out their essential insubstantiality and changing nature.  In doing so he recognised this needs to be constantly reflected on as the way to prevent us thinking that we have an independently existing self. That he saw is a serious error and a major cause of human suffering. His teaching thus undermines talk of a literal and focused rebirth (as many have noted, such as the psychologist Susan Blackmore in her book on Consciousness) I suggest then that attempts within Buddhism to assert we have a continuing identity in  rebirths after death should be seen as an early misunderstanding promoted by those steeped in the Indian belief in the atman or soul who found the Buddha’s teaching just too revolutionary. 


  1. 10.    Like Stephen Batchelor I accept that there is no plausible evidence for a literal rebirth or continuation of the consciousness of the individual after death or the existence of a Cartesian  soul.  Again I think such talk is a way of recognising that each of us is unique and that in subtle and important ways we resonate and live on not only in those we have been closest to, but in everyone we have interacted with. This gives us all a type of immortality.


  1. I was neither born a Buddhist nor raised in a Buddhist culture. I grew up in a

broadly humanist environment, did not attend Church, and was exempted from

“scripture” classes, as they were then called, at grammar school in Watford.


  1. 12.    My parents were not religious believers, but I was powerfully attracted to the figure of Jesus and his teaching as  expressed in the gospels and to the highly ceremonial, symbolic, liberal and anti-racist Christianity of the High Anglican tradition in South Africa, felt called to be a priest and spent seven years studying theology at university (Rhodes SA – Oxford) and was ordained first as a deacon and then after a period of doubt, I “got my faith back” and while teaching RE in Bristol was ordained as a non-stipendiary priest.  After a few years however I could not sustain belief in God, the supernatural, miracles in any form, the soul or life after death. This lead me, while working on a Masters Degree in the Philosophy of Religion and Education at Bristol, to atheism and to resign from the priesthood.  (Key texts on this path were for me Alastair Kee’s The Way of Transcendence and then Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith.)


  1. This lead me At the Age of eighteen I left England and travelled to India, where I settled in the Tibetan community around the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. I became a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty one and for ten years underwent a formal monastic education in Buddhist doctrine, philosophy and meditation. Even in the wake of the 1960’s this

was considered a highly unconventional career path. Buddhism, when it was

mentioned at all in those days, was dismissed by mainstream Western media as a marginal though benign spiritual preoccupation of ex-(or not so ex-) hippies and the

occasional avant-garde psychiatrist. I would have dismissed as a fantasist anyone

who told me that in forty years time Buddhist meditation would be available on the

NHS, and a U.S. congressman (Tim Ryan, Dem.) would publish a book called

A Mindful Nation How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve

Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit


  1. 14.    As an atheist I felt something important was missing. I then came across What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.  It was a book  that changed my life and lead me to seek out the Theravada monastic community and after meeting Ajahn Sumedho at Amaravati in 1985 I “turned for refuge” and have since regarded myself as being a Buddhist layman or “householder.”  I then embarked on a pretty serious study of the Buddhist tradition concentrating on the Theravada school and the Pali Canon as being the closest to the historical Gotama one can get. (The historical Buddha is as illusive as the historical Jesus)


  1. Buddhism has its origins in 5 th century BCE India and eventually spread throughout the whole of Asia, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Westerners had any inkling at all of what it taught and stood for. The abrupt discovery that Gotama Buddha was an historical figure every bit as real as Jesus Christ, whose influence had spread just as far and wide, came as a shock to the imperial conceits of Victorian England. While a tiny handful of Europeans converted to Buddhism from the late 19th century onwards, it was only in the late 1960’s that the dharma started to “go viral” in the West. (as a result of an often trendy and superficial contact with the Zen tradition in America by people who often while wishing to be “cool” ignored the Five Precepts of moral behaviour commended by Gotama as basic.) In contrast to Christianity, which slowly and painfully struggled to come to terms with the consequences of the Renaissance, the European enlightenment, natural science, democracy and secularization, Buddhism was catapulted into modernity from deeply conservative, agrarian societies in Asia, which had been either geographically remote or cut off from the rest of the world through political isolation. After a lifetime of work in Buddhist studies, the scholar and translator Edward Conze drew the conclusion that “Buddhism has not had an original idea in a thousand years.” When Buddhist communities collided with modernity in the course of the twentieth century, they were unprepared for the new kinds of questions and challenges their religion would face in a rapidly changing global and secular world.


  1. 16.    While this is all true, it is also true that in his rejection of the worship of any god and of supernatural practices and of the Buddha’s dismissal of miracles as spiritually irrelevant, and of his commending the five precept morality of compassion WHICH COMES VERY CLOSE TO UTILITARIANISM basic Buddhist teaching and practice sidestepped the monotheistic supernaturalism that is such a central feature of the three Abrahamic faiths. Add to this his insistence on religious tolerance and the Buddhist approach appears to preceed and be compatible with liberal and enlightenment values and a basically humanist world view.


  1. I suspect that a considerable part of the Western enthusiasm for things Buddhist may still be a Romantic projection of our yearnings for truth and holiness onto those distant places and peoples about which we know the least. I am sometimes alarmed at the uncritical willingness of Westerners to accept at face value whatever is uttered by a Tibetan lama or Burmese sayadaw  while they would be generally sceptical were something comparable said by a Christian bishop or Cambridge don.


  1. 18.     I  agree. From the start I said to myself that in getting involved with Buddhist practice I was determined I would not replace one set of superstitions for another – as I fear is the case with some Western converts to Buddhism who seem to have lost their critical faculties when it comes to their new religion.


  1. I do believe that Buddhist philosophy, ethics and meditation have something to offer in

helping us come to terms with many of the personal and social dilemmas of our world.


  1. 20.    Certainly. Attending meditation retreats and the practice of meditation has been for me a truly enlightening and awakening experience which has enabled me to face the typical difficulties of life, i.e.  professional and personal times of extreme stress, physical and emotional pain and unhappiness and has provided me with a moral compass I can follow because it helps me avoid causing suffering to others and to myself and so makes sense.


  1. But there are real challenges in translating Buddhist practices, values and ideas into comprehensive forms of life that are more than just a set of skills acquired in courses on mindfulness based stress -reduction, (Please do not knock the Mindfulness movement which just shows how applicable basic Buddhist practice is)  and that can flourish just as well outside meditation retreat centres as within them. Buddhism might require some radical surgery if it is to get to grips with modernity and find a voice that can speak to

the conditions of this saeculum meaning our contemporary time?


  1. So what sort of Buddhism does a self declared “secular Buddhist” like myself advocate? For me, secular Buddhism is not just another modernist reconfiguration of a traditional form of Asian Buddhism. You need to say why this is so. It is neither a reformed Theravada Buddhism (like the Vipassana movement), a reformed Tibetan tradition (like Shambhala Buddhism), a reformed Nichiren school (like the Soka Gakkai), a reformed Zen lineage (like the Order of Interbeing), nor a reformed hybrid of some or all of the above (like the Triratna Order – formerly the FWBO). It is more radical than that: it seeks to return to the roots of the Buddhist tradition and rethink Buddhism from the ground up.


  1. 23.    To do this it seems you are saying we cannot simply cherry pick those elements of the Buddhist tradition which feel the most compatible with our individual inclinations. As with Christianity there can be no evasion of the need for rigorous intellectually open historical- critical study of the origins of the tradition and you are not satisfied that this is happening in the above groups.


  1. In exploring such roots, the secular Buddhist finds herself excavating two fields that have been opened up in the past century by modern translators and scholars. The first of these fields consists of the earliest discourses attributed to Siddhattha Gotama, which are primarily found in the Pali canon of the Theravada school. We are exceptionally fortunate as English speakers not only to have a complete translation of the Pali canon, but one which is continually being mproved – something that speakers of other European languages can still only dream of.


  1. The second of these fields is that of our increasingly detailed (though still disputed and

incomplete) understanding of the historical, social, political, religious and

philosophical conditions that prevailed during the Buddha’s lifetime in 5 th century

BCE India. Thanks to scholars like Richard Gombrich , (See his: What the Buddha Thought) we are beginning to see more clearly the kind of world in which the Buddha taught. Together, these two fields provide a fertile soil for the project of rethinking, perhaps reimagining the dharma

from the ground up.


  1. Yet this very wealth of material (as is also the case with Christian materials regarding Rabbi Yeshua /Jesus) also raises serious difficulties in interpretation. The Pali canon is a complex tapestry of linguistic and rhetorical styles, shot through with conflicting ideas, doctrines and images, all assembled and elaborated over about four centuries. The canon does not speak with a single voice. As is also the case with the Gospels, the Jewish Scriptures and increasingly scholars are saying the Koran and Hadith.


  1. How then to distinguish between what is likely to have been the word of the Buddha

as opposed to a well intended “clarification” added by a later commentator? We are

not yet – and may never be – at a point where such questions can be answered with any



  1. The most we can expect is for scholarly research to elucidate what is possible and reasonably credible and consistent.. Be that as it may, as a Buddhist practitioner, I find that I still look to the Buddha’s discourses not just for scholarly knowledge, but in order to help me come to terms with what the Chinese call the “great matter of birth and death.” It is in this sense that my “secular Buddhism” still has a religious quality to it, because it is the conscious expression of my “ultimate concern” – as the theologian Paul Tillich once defined “faith.” As one who feels an urgency about such concerns, I am bound, therefore, to risk choices of interpretation now that may or may not turn out to be viable later.


  1. My starting point is to see in the Pali Canon and the stated teachings of Gautama reasons to believe that he was a man of singular originality, rationality and insight who cut through and rejected the major tenets of the two religious traditions he found himself facing, that is brahamanic sacrificial Indian religion and extreme ascetic Jainism. Consequently I have sought to bracket off anything attributed to the Buddha in the canon that could just as well have been said by a brahmin priest or Jain monk of the same period. So when the Buddha says that a certain action will produce a good or bad result in a future heaven or hell, or when he speaks of bringing to an end the repetitive cycle of rebirth and death in order to attain nirvana, I take such utterances to be determined by the common metaphysical outlook of that time rather than reflecting an intrinsic component of the dharma or possibly that Gotama used such language and such “metaphors” as would be most easily assimilated to that particular audience for his style it appears, was to tailor his words carefully to his audience. Still I thus give central importance to those teachings in the Buddha’s dharma that cannot be derived from the worldview of 5th century BCE India.


  1. Tentatively, I would suggest that this “bracketing” of metaphysical views, leaves us with four (I think there are more) distinctive key ideas that do not appear to have direct precedents in Indian tradition. I call them the four “P”s:

1. The principle of conditionality. – By this do you mean his teaching that all actions, including thoughts, have consequences – we cannot escape cause and effect.

2. The process of four noble tasks (truths)The revolutionary insights encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths.

3. The practice of mindful awareness as the key to deepening our understanding of ourselves and to strengthen our ability to act responsibly and morally.

4. The power of self – reliance (I have combined 4 with 3)

4. Anatta.  His teaching on the insubstantial nature of the self and his rejection of the atman idea of the Brahmins.

5. His rejection of the caste system.


 6.  His overseeing, setting up and training of the monastic Sangha as the bearer of his teaching and practice so it remains the oldest continuing religious institution in the world.


  1. Some time ago I realized that what I found most difficult to accept in Buddhism were

those beliefs that it shared with its sister Indian religions Hinduism and Jainism. Yet

when you bracket off those beliefs, you are left not with a fragmentary and emasculated teaching, but with an entirely adequate ethical, philosophical and practical framework for living your life in this world. Thus what is truly original in the Buddha’s teaching, I discovered, was his

secular outlook.  (That needs to be expanded. He rejected superstition and all worship of supernatural beings, he rejected the caste system, the second-class status of women, the authority of priests, teachers, animal sacrifices, astrology, he even warned against his followers treating his words with uncritical acceptance and asserted that as wisdom grows then we must decide for ourselves.  And when you bracket off the quasi-divine attributes that the figure of the Buddha is believed to possess – a fleshy head -protuberance, golden skin etc. Omniscience and moral perfection–and focus on the episodes in the canon that recount his often fraught dealings with his contemporaries, then the humanity of Siddhattha Gotama begins to emerge with more clarity too. All this supports what the British scholar Trevor Ling surmised nearly fifty years ago: that what we now know as “Buddhism” started life as an embryonic civilisation or culture based on compassion, respect for people, families and their property, for animals and nature, that minimised violence, promoted tolerance and placed heavy responsibilities to promote these values on rulers that then mutated into another organized Indian religion in the face of “business as usual.”with corruption, oppression and war.


  1. Secular Buddhism, which seeks to articulate a way of practicing the dharma in this

world and time, thus finds vindication through its critical return to canonical sources,

and its attempts to recover a vision of Gotamas’s own saeculum space in history Above all, secular Buddhism is something to do, not something to believe in.

This pragmatism is evident in many of the classic parables: the poisoned arrow [M.

63], the city [S. 12:65], the raft [M. 22] – as well as in the Buddha’s presentation of

his four “noble truths” as a range of tasks to be performed rather than a set of

propositions to be affirmed. Instead of trying to justify the belief that “life is

suffering” (the first noble truth), one seeks to embrace and deal wisely with suffering

when it occurs. (sorry I don’t get this. We are surrounded by pain and alienation in ourselves and in others and the root causes of it are the patterns of compulsive, addictive, unaware and unreflective behaviour that ignores consequences and  constitute greed hatred and delusion Instead of trying to convince oneself  (I don’t try and convince myself of this. To me it just seems blindingly obvious as being the case.)that “craving is the origin of suffering” (the second noble truth), one seeks to let go of and not get tangled up in craving whenever it rises up in one’s body or mind. (Yes.  Here I agree) From this perspective it is irrelevant whether the statements “life is suffering” or “craving is the origin of suffering” are either true or false. Why? Because these four so – called “truths” are not propositions that one accepts as a believer or rejects as a non-believer. They are challenging pointers to the nature of reality, of how life is which can be seen as we reflect on our own experience and that of those around us. They are also suggestions to do something that might make a difference in the world in which you coexist with others now.


  1. “Enlightenment,” therefore though I prefer the term “awakening” (I do too)–is not a

mystical insight into the true nature of mind or reality (that always weirdly accords

with the established views of one’s brand of Buddhism), but rather the opening up of

a way of being -in-this world that is no longer determined by one’s greed, hatred, fear  selfishness and delusions about oneself, other people and what constitutes good and worthwhile behaviour . Thus awakening is not a state, but a process: an ethical way of life and commitment that enables human flourishing. As such it is no longer the exclusive preserve of enlightened teachers or accomplished yogis but to a greater or lesser extent something which all of us can participate in. Likewise, nirvana –

i.e. the stopping of craving – is not the goal of the path but its very source. Sounds good but not sure what it means. Are you saying that we flourish as and when we become aware that we have become neurotically self-centred and unaware that we share life with those around us? For human flourishing first stirs in that clear, bright, empty space where neurotic self-centredness realizes that it has no ground to stand on at all. One is then freed to pour forth like sunlight.


  1. Such a view of the dharma fits well with Don Cupitt’s vision of a “solar ethics.” Please tell me more In Room 33 of the British Museum you will find a small clay, 2nd century CE Gandharan bas -relief, which represents the Buddha as a stylised image of the sun placed on a seat beneath the bodhi tree. In the Pali canon, Gotama describes himself as belonging to the “solar lineage” (adiccagotta), while others call him by the epithet “solar friend” (adiccamitta). A true friend (kalyanamitta), he remarks, is one who casts light on the path ahead just as the rising sun illuminates the earth [S. 45:49]. Yet as Buddhism grew into an organized Indian religion, it seemed to lose sight of its solar origins and turned lunar. Nirvana is often compared to the moon: cool, impassive, remote, and also as they didn’t know then but we know now –a pale reflection of an extraordinary source of heat and light. Perhaps we have reached a time when we need to recover and practice again a solar dharma, one concerned with shedding its light (wisdom) and heat (compassion) onto and into this world, which, as far as we know, might be the only one that ever has been or ever will be.


  1. 35.    Sounds good but perhaps a little rhetorical. Solar Dharma? Sorry I am not sure what this means. Is this again a call for the exercise of the spirit and not the letter of the law? That we need to brush aside the carapace of custom and ritual and instead go for simplicity? Here Pope Francis and Ajahn Amaro might agree that could be a mistake. As Yeshua said “I came not to destroy the Torah but to fulfil it.”  Forms, conventions and ceremonies can be very supportive and inspiring – and a complete waste of time.   As Ajahn Sumedho once said to me, “It depends how you use them.”