We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
– Van Morrison
Well-known writer on Buddhist subjects, Stephen Batchelor says, “The Buddha was not a mystic.” This is true, if by “mystic” you are referring to “esoteric” or “otherworldly”, or if by using the word “mysticism” you mean, “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis”. However, if you refer to another definition of mysticism found at Merriam-Webster, “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight),” then the Buddha was certainly a mystic, sans the God part.
The Buddha taught that nirvana (representing ultimate reality) was not some far-off transcendent realm, but was present in the here and now and accessible to all. However, nirvana is just one way of expressing the ultimate. Nagarjuna said, “The Buddha teaches the one dharma in numerous ways . . . the ultimate truth, the reality that is not itself anything specific (akincana) is the heart of the teaching of the Buddha,” and Chih-i said, “The one truth is given many names.”
Batchelor has attracted a lot of attention with his deconstruction of Buddhist philosophy. For me, his notions have a scorched earth effect, because after he has deconstructed and demystified dharma, there is very little left: a classic case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
I don’t find Batchelor a particularly original thinker. But then, those who are seem to be few and far between. I’ve noticed some similarity between Batchelor’s work and that of Prof. Trevor Ling (1920-1995), who was also British. That’s okay, all writers and philosophers build upon what came before. Assuming he has at least read Prof. Ling, which I think is a reasonable assumption, Batchelor seems to have missed some of Ling’s finer points.
Here is the expanded passage from Buddhism Without Beliefs, published in 1998, which was quoted briefly above.
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening. In describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of have discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom the taste of dharma.
And here is a passage from Prof. Ling’s The Buddha, published in 1973:
The nature of the change which took place when Gotama sat meditating under the bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana river is traditionally described by saying that he became the Buddha, that is, the Awakened. In later Buddhist literature, the transition is described in terms which make it literally an earth-shaking event, but the earlier literature gives a more prosaic and analytical account, and one which makes the event described extremely difficult to fit into the categories of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experience. This was no ‘inaugural vision’, such as the prophets of Israel underwent. There was no sense of awe at the realization of the presence of divine being, such as Isaiah felt; no ecstatic experience like that of Jeremiah; no voice from heaven accompanying the descent of the holy spirit as Christian tradition represents happening in the case of Jesus; no archangel as in the case of Muhammad, coming down to announce ‘Thou art God’s apostle’, making the chosen one to fall upon his knees and tremble. . .
The account given in a Pali Sutta called Discourse of the Ariyan Quest is represented as the Buddha’s own version of the matter given years later to some of his disciples . . . an account of the intellectual penetration into the nature of the human situation which the Buddha then achieved . . .
Just as the Buddha’s experience was unlike those Ling cites from the Bible, the collection of texts that are the source of nearly all Western religious thought, the Buddha, too, as a teacher, was unlike Western models. He was not a prophet like Isaiah or a law-bringer in the way that Moses was; he was a meditation teacher, a mendicant philosopher. Prof. Ling describes the Buddha’s awakening as “humanistic discovery based on analysis.” In the Majjhima Nikaya or “Middle-length Discourses”, the Buddha says, “I am an analyst, not a dogmatist.”
After dealing with the Buddha’s awakening, Batchelor goes on to describe the “Four Noble Truths” by saying “At precisely this juncture, Buddhism becomes a religion.” In my opinion, Batchelor is projecting his own Western religious prejudices onto the matter. The Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs but rather, as Ling indicates, the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation.
In its original presentation, the Four Noble Truths does transform Buddhism into a philosophy, but not necessarily a religious one. There is a point of view to be sure, and without it, Buddhism would just be one more meditation technique or another form of yoga.
My feeling is that Batchelor and others who take the same tact are actually reacting against Western religion and not Buddhism. They have a beef with religion, and that’s cool, so do I.
Certainly there is Buddhism with beliefs, Buddhism as religion, as dogma, but there is the opposite as well. Really, Buddhism in today’s world is a potpourri where you can find almost anything you are looking for. But, at its core, I do not see the belief-system and religion that Batchelor does, and I suspect that he sees those things mainly because he wants to.
Prof. Ling had something to say about that, but first I should note that Ling’s thesis is “what we today call a religion is the remains of what was once a complete civilization” and when he uses the word “sacred” Ling is referencing what Durkheim called ‘a sense of the sacred’, or “the human individual’s awareness of his own dependence on the values and collective life of the society to which he belonged, something which greatly transcended him, with his own short span of life, something to which he was indebted, which upheld him, and which provided the sanctions of his conduct.” Prof. Ling:
Thus, in one sense of the word ‘religion’, denoting beliefs and practices connected with spirit-beings, Buddhism was in origin not a religion, but a non-religious philosophy. In the other, more sophisticated meaning of the world ‘religion’, which indicates awareness of that which is sacred, that which sanctions every individual existence, Buddhism in its Asian setting remains in certain respects what it was in origin, a way of attempting to restructure human consciousness and the common life of men in accordance with the nature of what it conceives to be the sacred reality.
There are signs that in the modern period this important dimension of Buddhist civilization – the societal and political dimension – has been lost sight of, and that Buddhism is being reduced from a civilization to what the modern world understands by religion: that is, a system of ‘spiritual’ beliefs to be taken up by the minority in whatever country it happens to be who care for that sort of thing, a source of comfort to some, but in the last resort a private irrelevance, having little bearing on the real issues that shape human affairs. When Westerners have looked at Buddhism, too often they have seen only this, because this was all they were looking for.
Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached –
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall, –
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.
– Conrad Aiken
Memo: Here is an interesting essay about what various religions (I hate to lump Buddhism into this group, but its included) in Japan are doing to help with relief and recovery efforts, and as well, a connection of sorts to my post on March 14th. From religiondispatches.org: Tokyo Governor Says Tsunami is Divine Punishment—Religious Groups Ignore Him