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July 2, 2015 full moon

Sunny Green Leaves

After Buddhism: A New Idiom for a Pragmatic, Ethical Culture Based on the Teachings of Gotama

An Interview with Stephen Batchelor

Stephen teaches courses on Buddhism and leads meditation retreats all over the world. He is a guiding teacher at Gaia House and translator and author of various books and articles including the bestselling Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Stephen’s new book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, will be available this fall. He will be teaching at BCBS this November.

Insight Journal: With proper caveats about speculation, you go after a historical Buddha in this book—a real, if extraordinary, flesh-and-blood person. You do this through careful research of the texts and commentaries, and also by creating, based on that research, historical sketches of several other people who were his contemporaries. Some we know, such as Ānanda; others we recall from certain texts, such as King Pasenadi; and others such as Mahānāma we might pass by without much thought; also wanderers or ascetics that the Buddha encounters such as Vacchagotta. You’ve carefully figured out all the kinship, political, and other relationships these people have to the Buddha. What do you hope to accomplish with that?

Stephen Batchelor: I’ve been working on trying to reconstruct the Buddha’s life and social-political-economic world for more than 10 years now. This project actually started out as the foundation for a screenplay. Reading Majjhima 89, the Dhammacetiya Sutta: Discourse on the Monuments to the Dhamma, which is the final meeting between Pasenadi and Gotama, I had this odd experience of suddenly seeing how the whole life held together, almost like “your life passing before your eyes.” That sutta provided me with the missing link, and suddenly I figured out how it all worked. Since then I’ve been trying to bolster that understanding by getting more and more data. The screenplay never came to anything. Then I worked on a six-part TV miniseries with the same material; that didn’t go anywhere. In between doing those two things, I wrote it as a novel: the life of the Buddha from the point of view of Ānanda, as he recalls it on the eve of the First Council. That took me a year or more; that didn’t go anywhere either.  Nobody wanted to publish it.

The next attempt was in my book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, where the second part of the book interweaves a travelogue through modern-day India, a pilgrimage as it were, with a reconstruction of the life. The attempt in my new book is by far the most detailed and I think probably the most assured reading.

The great difference is that this version relies on the work of W. W. Rockhill. Rockhill was an American diplomat who lived in China in the 19th century, a linguistic genius who must have been the first American to know Tibetan; he also produced a Chinese-English dictionary. In 1884 he published a life of the Buddha according to the Tibetan canon. This draws from material of equivalent antiquity to that of the Pāli Canon; it’s called the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, and he went through this in the 1870s and pulled out of it a story almost identical to the story that I reconstructed from the Pāli materials. Somewhat embarrassingly, I hadn’t actually read Rockhill until quite recently. I didn’t think the Tibetan material would be relevant. But I was wrong. The Tibetan Vinaya, from the Mūlasarvāstivāda, gives us the same story, with the same characters, and the same relationships—all of that detail. The two versions don’t agree in every detail, but they’re remarkably similar. So we actually have two independent sources, pretty much, that seem to be referring to a common source, that must have predated both, that would go back I think very close to the Buddha’s time. So all of that work, in a sense, has come to fruition in this book.

Vine on Garden Fence

IJ: Was Rockhill familiar with the Pāli Canon?

SB: He was a polymath. He refers to Sanskrit sources, to Pāli sources; how well he knew those languages, I don’t know. I don’t think he knew the Pāli Canon in detail. Certainly none of that had been translated or published in his lifetime. If he had known about it, it would have been through his own reading of the Pāli, but judging by his footnotes, he doesn’t seem to have much sense of it. So he was working independently.

IJ: It’s remarkable that we have two seemingly independent sources that agree so well.

SB: Yes, very remarkable, and I’m amazed nobody else has spotted that. G. P. Malalasekera [a pioneering Sri Lankan scholar], who I refer to in my book, quotes Rockhill quite a lot, actually, but he never really draws together all the threads in a way that allows a coherent narrative to unfold. So I’m very excited that at this distance in time we do seem to have far more material than anyone might have guessed. The trouble of course is that all of these stories are scattered through the Canon and Vinaya.  So when you find yourself reading through the Majjhima Nikāya, for example, you simply don’t get a sense of who these people are. It takes an awfully long time to pick out all the little fragments and reassemble them. What’s amazing is that these characterizations are always consistent. Even if a person only appears half a dozen times in the Canon, that person will appear in a consistent guise on each occasion—which to me suggests that there must at one time have been a single, freestanding account, probably retained orally, that actually told the story of the Buddha’s life—that then got lost in its entirety, leaving only disconnected fragments in the Canon.

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Wet Flowers on Trellis

June 2, 2015
Insecurity, Self-Criticism, and Impermanence
An Article by Paul R. Fulton

May 3, 2015
Love and Compassion in the Visuddhimagga
A Conversation with Marie Heim

April 4, 2015
Cultivating Bodhicitta: Wisdom and Compassion in Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Awakened Life
A Conversation with William Edelglass

March 5, 2015
Going Forth
A Conversation with David Chernikoff

February 3, 2015
The Buddha doesn’t do “cozy”
A Conversation with John Peacock

January 4, 2015
A Philosophical Assessment of Secular Buddhism
By Dale S. Wright

December 6, 2014
Mapping the Mind
A presentation by Andrew Olendzki

November 6, 2014
Wise Attention
A conversation with Sayadaw U Jagara

October 8, 2014
Secular mindfulness: potential & pitfalls
By Jenny Wilks

September 8, 2014
Some (mostly secular) thoughts on Emptiness
By Gay Watson

August 10, 2014
Neuro-Bhavana: The Mindful Cultivation of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
A video series with Rick Hanson

July 12, 2014
The Evolving Sangha
Talking with Jay Michaelson

June 13, 2014
Awareness of Thinking: Recollective Awareness Practice
Talking with Jason Siff

May 14, 2014
Jhāna Practice and True Happiness
Talking with Shaila Catherine

April 15, 2014
Natural Buddhism
By Gil Fronsdal

March 16, 2014
How is the Medium Changing the Message?
By Ken McLeod

February 14, 2014
Buddhist Roots & Ethics
Talking with Lynn Monteiro & Frank Musten

January 15, 2014
Silent Illumination
By Guo Gu

December 17, 2013
New Horizons: Talking with Andrew Olendzki

November 17, 2013
Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, & Compassionate Action
Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison

October 18, 2013
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
a conversation with Joseph Goldstein

September 19, 2013
MIT Meets the Monastery
a conversation with Rajesh Kashturirangan

August 20, 2013
Secular Buddhism: New vision or yet another of the myths it claims to cure?
By Akincano Weber

July 22, 2013
The Essence of Dhamma
By Ajaan Thanissaro

June 23, 2013
Seeing the Āsavas
By Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

May 25, 2013
Meeting your thoughts at a resting place
By Jason Siff

April 25, 2013
New rivers, new rafts
By Chris Talbott

March 27, 2013
Wheels of Fire: The Buddha’s Radical Teaching on Process
By Kate Lila Wheeler

February 25, 2013
True & False: Dharma After the Western Enlightenment
Talking with Rita Gross

January 26, 2013
Honoring a Life & Legacy in the Dhamma
Talking with Mirka Knaster about Munindra

See Archive page for some older editions.