Some Gentle Buddhist Polemics

Bhikkhu Anālayo (2021), Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions: A Historical Perspective, Boston: Wisdom Publications

Anālayo’s latest book argues against four instances of conceit in Buddhism: (1) the androcentric conceit among Buddhists generally that women practitioners are at a disadvantage; (2) the conceit among Mahāyānists that the Bodhisattva ideal is superior; (3) the conceit among Theravādins that their form of Buddhism is the most authentic; and (4) the conceit among secular Buddhists, and of Stephen Batchelor in particular, that their interpretations of Buddhism are superior to those of Asian Buddhist traditions. Anālayo draws on his unrivalled early Buddhist scholarship to engage in polemics against the conceit of superiority. I’m going to focus mainly on what Anālayo writes about Stephen Batchelor. But what do I mean by saying that Superiority Conceit is a work of polemics?

Although Anālayo is well known as a scholar of early Buddhist texts, he has gone beyond scholarly analysis since his first publications. In the conclusion to Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (2003), for instance, he makes a number of innovative suggestions about how to practice with the four establishments of mindfulness. More recently he has extended his attention even beyond practice-related matters, with a book that addresses Buddhist approaches to climate change, and with an article on the role of mindfulness in tackling racism.

In his latest book, Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions, he has published his first work of polemics. The dictionary definition of polemics is “the practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute”. In this case, Anālayo is engaging in controversial debate because it has been normal for Buddhism to be androcentric, because Mahāyāna Buddhist texts routinely denigrate so-called ‘Hīnayāna’ Buddhism, because Theravāda Buddhists take it for granted that their form of Buddhism is the most authentic, and because Stephen Batchelor has for years published books that have criticised traditional forms of Asian Buddhism. Hence, when Anālayo criticises each of these as manifestations of superiority conceit, he is sure to generate controversy and dispute.

Polemical literature is an ancient and venerable genre. A well-known recent example of polemics is Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion (2006). Dawkins does not merely explain why he personally does not believe in God, but argues that belief in God is a delusion, that is, a harmful cognitive mistake. It is this controversial point that makes his book a work of polemics. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist movement, has also written polemical works. His book Forty-Three Years Ago (1993) argues against the technical validity of the Theravādin bhikkhu ordination, in order to recall Theravādin monastics to what Sangharakshita understands as what is really important, which is going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.[1] Given that many Theravādin monastics regard it as extremely important that they are validly ordained, Sangharakshita’s book was sure to generate some heat.[2]

It is stating the obvious to say that polemics generates controversy and debate, and that advocates of the view or position which has been criticised will attempt to defend what they believe in. All polemics involves the sense that something important is at stake, something it is going to be worth getting into dispute about, with all the argument that will ensue. In the case of Anālayo’s new book, what is at stake is Anālayo’s conviction that all forms of superiority conceit are at odds with the point of Buddhism. By contrast, “it is by diminishing ego, letting go of arrogance, and abandoning conceit that one becomes a better Buddhist, no matter what tradition one may follow” (p.140). Further, Anālayo believes that the current environmental crisis faced by humanity is largely down to a more general human sense of superiority to nature. If Buddhists can overcome their superiority conceits in relation to other Buddhists, they can then work together “to apply the medicine of the Dharma” to the stricken world (p.140). 

From all this we can understand that Anālayo is not aiming to attack or deflate or shame anyone, but rather to prompt some re-consideration of essentials. This aim on Anālayo’s part brings to mind another feature of successful polemics: to engage successfully in dispute one needs to present convincing arguments. Any form of invalid argument, especially the use of ad hominem (attacking someone else’s character), will undermine the effectiveness of the polemic. For this reason, Anālayo is scrupulous in avoiding any personal criticism, focussing instead on specific points of doctrine and belief, the historical context for their arising, and hence on the possibility for change.

In Chapter 4, Anālayo enters into dispute with secular Buddhism, which, he writes, “at times comes with the conceit of superiority over other Buddhist traditions” (p.105). He is careful, however, to make clear that he is not disputing “whether a particular idea is appealing in current times”, that is, whether the very idea of a modern, secular version of Buddhism is justifiable or not. Similarly, he does not wish in any way to curtail the person freedom of Stephen Batchelor to hold whatever views he wants or to “consider himself to be a Buddhist” (p.105). This latter point is important because some traditional Buddhists have accused Batchelor of no longer being a Buddhist. Anālayo, however, is careful to focus only on some of Stephen Batchelor’s claims to have discovered what the Buddha really taught. In this way, Anālayo is engaging in a dispute about the validity of Batchelor’s (and secular Buddhism’s) claim to be truer to the spirit of early Buddhism than the Asian Buddhist traditions that have transmitted Buddhism through the centuries. 

Anālayo’s critique of Batchelor is mainly of points made in After Buddhism (2015) and Secular Buddhism (2017). In the ‘preamble’ to his more recent book, The Art of Solitude (2020), Batchelor writes, “I do not consider The Art of Solitude to be a Buddhist book”.[3] He describes (on p.146) how, in the midst of an ayahuasca ritual, he feels that he vomits up Buddhism, and is reborn no longer wanting to be a combatant in the “dharma wars”. Nevertheless, those earlier books have been the inspiration – and were surely designed to be the inspiration – for a movement, called ‘secular Buddhism’, not unconnected with Bodhi College, the Buddhist study programme run by Batchelor and friends. 

To go straight to the keystone of Batchelor’s secular Buddhism, his re-intepretation of the Four Noble Truths as ‘tasks’ rather than truths is based on a mistaken, even tendentious, reading of a scholarly article by K.R. Norman (Superiority Conceit, pp.130–1). Batchelor re-interprets the first truth, of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness as an existential encounter with illness, ageing and death that invites one to fully “embrace life”. As Anālayo comments, in his laconic way, “anyone is of course free to adopt the idea of embracing life as a personal philosophy of life. The issue is only that such a celebrating of the mystery of being alive does not correspond to the implications of the four noble truths in early Buddhist thought and hence cannot be considered an accurate reflection of this core element of the teachings” (pp.128–9). Anālayo’s point is that the Buddha’s teaching of the truth of dukkha is that this world is an imperfect situation, in which illness, ageing and death are unwelcome yet inevitable. It is on the basis of an appreciation of this imperfect situation that the Buddha’s teaching of the way to Awakening should be understood. Anālayo goes on to point out that Batchelor’s interpretation of the first truth appears to be based on his own religious or mystical experience, and that he appears to go on to interpret a range of Buddhist teachings in line with his own ideas and experiences (p.133). Anālayo then discusses Batchelor’s general method for interpreting the meaning of early Buddhism, pointing out that it is based on personal preferences rather than any defensible principle of scholarship.

Suffice to say that I agree with all of Anālayo’s points. In previous reviews of After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism, as well as of Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (2010), I have mentioned how various claims about early Buddhism that Batchelor makes can easily shown to be mistaken attempts to interpret early Buddhism in ways that he evidently likes but which are not based on reasonable scholarship. Anālayo makes the further point that Batchelor’s critical intepretations of Buddhism are reminiscent of those of Christian missionaries in the British colonial period, who made some study of Buddhism for the sake converting Buddhists to Christianity. For instance, as is well-known, Batchelor is a critic of the teachings of karma and rebirth, and just like earlier Christian missionaries he argues that rebirth cannot be squared with the teaching of non-self (anātman). You might think that it had never occurred to Asian Buddhists to wonder about this. Certainly it seems not to have occurred to Stephen Batchelor to examine their answers in a way that would do justice to their own perception of themselves as followers of the Buddha. Batchelor more generally argues that Asian Buddhist traditions are largely stagnant, and that Buddhism needs to be upgraded to “Buddhism 2.0”. This revisionist aspect of Batchelor’s secular Buddhism does seem all too like a form of neo-colonialism – the attempt to revise Buddhism from a western perspective by arguing that Asian Buddhists have missed the point and that Batchelor’s modern, agnostic, sceptical approach is closer to the original and authentic meaning of Buddhism.

If this isn’t a form of superiority conceit, of holding secular Buddhism to be superior to Asian Buddhism, it is hard to know what is. However, a question which Anālayo does not raise is to what degree Stephen Batchelor knows what he is doing. It is hard to tell. Last summer, during Buddhafield Festival Online, I participated in a broadcast conversation with Stephen Batchelor. Stephen repeatedly presented his view that the Buddha did not teach metaphysics, or present any account of truth and reality. I read back to him accounts of the Buddha’s teachings about truth and reality from early Buddhist texts, and Stephen dismissed them as late fabrications by monastics. It was a friendly, courteous conversation, but it could not have been clearer that Batchelor has come to a philosophical position of dogmatic scepticism, and that he believes, against much evidence, that this was the position held by the Buddha. It was also clear that Batchelor is not interested in debate or discussion: he is “no longer a combatant in the Dharma wars”. This means he does not even want to engage with evidence or debate.

His argument for scepticism depends on taking the Chapter of the Eights (Aṭṭhakavagga) from the Sutta Nipāta as representing the true teaching of the Buddha. The Chapter of the Eights certainly does present the Buddha as teaching not holding to views and not engaging in argument. This scepticism, however, is methodological, not dogmatic. A methodological sceptic engages in doubting the truth claims made by others in order to understand them better and avoid their mistakes. The Buddha’s methodological scepticism involves investigating how views and arguments, when held onto as expressing the truth, in fact obscure the means to attain to the truth, which, according to Buddhism, is through the meditative process of insight. Only by taking the scepticism of the Chapter of the Eights as methodological can one understand how the Buddha went on to teach right view in a positive way, and indeed how the various positive teachings of Buddhism could be compatible with scepticism. Batchelor, however, turns the Chapter of the Eights into evidence for the Buddha’s supposed dogmatic scepticism.

My personal view is that Stephen Batchelor is entirely sincere in what he says and writes, but that he is unconscious of his own tendency to dogmatism, and how this leads to the appearance of a superiority conceit. This is a pity since secular Buddhism is a popular and timely new interpretation of the ancient Buddhist teachings. But it does no justice to traditional Buddhist teachings nor to secular Buddhism to try to make one better than the other.

[1] Now included in Sangharakshita (2019), The Three Jewels I, in Complete Works Vol.2, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, pp.575–614. 

[2] Some of this heat is discussed in a follow-up by by Sangharakshita (1994), Was the Buddha a Bhikkhu?

[3] All three of these books are published by Yale University Press.