Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Bracketing Out" the Metaphysical From the Buddha!

Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge has a European character who goes to India in search of enlightenment and lands up at a monastery in the Himalayas carrying a backpack full of books.

The abbot of the monastery agrees to be his instructor and, as initiation, sends him to meditate overnight at a small shrine higher up the mountain. The young man lugs his backpack up there and to survive the bitter cold of the night burns all his books. When he returns the next day the abbot says with a broad smile, “Now we can begin.”

Stephen Batchelor, the author of After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma for a secular age evidently never had such a wise instructor.

His work is burdened not only with a lifetime of arid book-learning but a massive load of cultural baggage. He proclaims himself a British/European Protestant Christian “conscious of [his] indebtedness to the thinkers of ancient Greece who understood philosophy as a practice for the healing and care of the soul” (page 5).

That “embedded cultural world-view” (page 16) is something he can “no more discard than I could wilfully cease to comprehend the English language.”

He finds it “disturbing when Western converts to Buddhism with a background and upbringing similar to my own uncritically adopt beliefs – in karma and rebirth for example – that traditional Buddhists simply take for granted.”

Noting the failure of modern Buddhist movements “to critically reexamine the underlying worldview of Buddhism, in which are still embedded the cosmology and metaphysics of ancient India,” he asserts the need to confront “the traditional doctrines of karma, rebirth, heavens, hells and supra-normal powers” (page 19).

The “long-lost enchanted world where gods and devils alike descended to earth to commune with human beings” appears to him as “either figments of the imagination or signs of incipient madness” (page 26).

He suggests “bracketing off such metaphysical views” to achieve a modern understanding of the “four central ideas” of Buddhism that have no “direct precedents in Indian tradition” (page 27). The four are the “principle of conditionality,” the practices of the eight-fold path, the perspective of mindful awareness and the power of self-reliance.” Most of the book is an effort to “tease out the implications” of those “four Ps.

It is difficult to decide where to start critiquing this wholesale merchandising of smug ignorance.

His basic attitude reminds me of the early British merchants in India who went around in the tropical heat dressed in wool and would not bathe because it was considered unhealthy back home.

Like them, he is so immersed in his native habits of mind as to be impervious to new information.

Consider, for instance, his dismissal of karma and rebirth. Both are now scientifically valid concepts because of two major 20th Century advances in the understanding of the nature of reality:

One is the proven continuum of matter and energy (the basis of Einstein’s E=MC2).

The other is the genetic code.

In combination, those two advances signify that when a person dies, his/her genetic code will endure as an indestructible energy pattern.

As with a radio wave carrying the human voice, that pattern can resonate in a receptive antenna to recreate the original.

In the case of an energy wave carrying the genetic code the antenna would be a cell at the moment of conception.

Theoretically, that explanation brings rebirth fully into the realm of scientific possibility. At some time in the future the phenomenon should be verifiable in the laboratory.

If we consider further that causality is an inescapable law at every level of our being, it is not difficult to envisage a soul (genetic code) floating free from a dead body with a permanent record of its past life. That is karmic transmission from one life to the next.

At other points in the book Batchelor is laughably obtuse. On page 128, for instance, he writes: “In taking a metaphysical turn toward truth, Buddhists shifted away from an emphasis on know-how to an emphasis on knowledge.”

That is a meaningless statement. Truth in its universal manifestation is inescapably metaphysical. It can be known only with spiritual intuition and then only inexpressibly.

That is why Hindus postulated ultimate reality as the featureless abstraction of Brahman.

The Buddha, in a period of great confusion about the nature of that abstraction, sidestepped arguments by saying ultimate reality was Sunyatta, a complete void. (It is easy to see in that dodge the subsequent birth of the Zero, the most powerful of numbers.)

In Hindu philosophy, the unknowable Brahman is manifested in Creation as Rita (Rule). In the human context it is Sanathana Dharma, the Eternal Law. A subset of that applied Truth is Karma, the causality of action.

Batchelor seems to be oblivious of all this. He thinks “the doctrine of karma is a theory of cosmic justice” and that rebirth is “simply the medium within which such justice plays itself out.”

The book ends with Batchelor extolling “Secular Dharma” as the “consequence of modernity’s encounter” with Buddhism.

Its practitioners are people unaffiliated to any traditional school of Buddhist belief, “spiritual nomads” guided by "writings and podcasts" from across the virtual spectrum, some happily identifying themselves as “Christians, Jews or non-believers.”

Some of his “Ten Theses” defining that “secular Buddhist space” are a prime facie rejection of key Buddhist teachings.

The first thesis is that a “secular Buddhist is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone.”

The second is that the “practice of the dharma consists of four tasks: to embrace suffering, to let go of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate an integrated way of life.”

Number five says “Each form the dharma assumes is a transient human creation, contingent upon the historical, cultural, social and economic conditions that generated it.”

Number ten says a practitioner of the dharma finds “inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist religions and secular sources alike.

Nowhere does Batchelor consider the cardinal Hindu/Buddhist concern with Maya, the delusion that encompasses the concrete material world. Not surprisingly, he never questions the origin of the “secular” space the book sells.

It originated not in a confident overflow of humanism after the “Enlightenment” but in the bloody religious wars that preceded it.

The Roman hijacking of the legacy of Jesus let loose relentless centuries of horrific “conversion,” inquisitions, oppressions and war that ultimately fatigued Europeans with the very concept of God.

That falling away from divinity led into the dogma of “I think therefore I am” and the Newtonian construct of a soulless mechanistic universe; it is a descent Europe still celebrates as the onset of “modernity.”

The nightmares that ensued from that disconnect with God and Nature made the spirituality of India attractive to Europeans fleeing the death march. The obverse of that coin is that those who remain committed to the "modernity" narrative are made deeply insecure by talk of spiritual matters. That is the root of Batchelor’s effort to bracket out the spiritual from the Buddha. He deserves our sympathy.

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