Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

The Flexible Appropriation of Tradition: Stephen Batchelor's Secular Buddhism

Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

The Flexible Appropriation of Tradition: Stephen Batchelor's Secular Buddhism

Article excerpt

The Flexible Appropriation of Tradition: Stephen Batchelor's Secular Buddhism

Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010, 320 pp., $17.00, ISBN 978-0-385-52706-4, paperback);

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0300-20518-3, 381 pp., $18.00, ISBN, paperback);

Stephen Batchelor, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-300-22323-1, 285 pp., $27.50, hardback).

In 1972, Stephen Batchelor, aged eighteen, left his native Britain and made his way to Dharamsala, center of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. There he studied in the Gelugpa tradition, ordained at age twenty-one, and underwent a rigorous monastic training for the next ten years. The latter part of his period in Tibetan robes found him working in Switzerland, then Germany. He first came to international attention as a Tibetan-English translator, starting with the 1979 publication of his rendering of Santideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. Translations of Nāgārjuna and contemporary Tibetan teachings followed.

Dissatisfied with what he saw as the scholasticism and doctrinal certitudes of Tibetan Buddhism, Batchelor moved in 1981 to Ssonggwangsa, a Korean Sön monastery, under the tutelage of Kusan Sunim. In 1985 he disrobed, married Martine Fages (now Martine Batchelor, a dharma teacher and author in her own right, as well as his collaborator), and entered on his present career as an independent, international dharma teacher, scholar, and writer. A long list of publications, plus co-founding the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry and the more recent Bodhi College, and substantial input in the development of Buddhist institutions in the West (not least the insight meditation retreat center Gaia House), lend distinction to this career .

As Batchelor has worked mainly in the West, the overarching theme of adapting the dharma to Western culture has steadily grown in intensity in his work through the decades. Over its two and a half millennia, the Buddhadharma has crossed many cultural boundaries, so historical precedents abound. The Chinese one, starting around two millennia ago, stands out. In China, the dharma encountered an advanced civilization whose language and culture expressed emphases, folkways, and reality constructs quite different to those of its birthplace, fifth-century BCE India. After generations of acculturation, a particularly Chinese iteration of dharma and its practice, Chan, emerged in the seventh century CE. It was unmistakably dharma, but at the same time unmistakably different from the original model. Would the Western experience eventually turn out to be similar, only more so? Batchelor's answer to this question was a tentative yes that has become less and less tentative over the last three decades. In the three more recent books under review, that yes has become emphatic.

Just as the Chinese acculturation of the dharma produced Chan (which in turn spawned Sön in Korea and Zen in Japan), so secular Buddhism is one thinkable contender for the dharma's Western acculturation, and the one with which Batchelor is now publicly associated. Secular Buddhism as it exists today is a developmental tendency only; it makes no claim to being an institutionalized and fully articulated "school" of Buddhism, nor does Batchelor claim to speak authoritatively on its behalf. But we may have to wait some time for a plausibly competing account to emerge and challenge the one presented in the three books reviewed here.

Another enduring theme in Batchelor's recent work is narrativity. We tend to make sense of things by telling stories about them, thus grasping their origins in a temporal dimension-whether through more or less mythologized histories, or through pure myths of origins. …

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