Bouncing down the rutted dirt road heading towards Bodhgaya, we are a traveling Sangha thrown together in a bus by pilgrimage and the desire for adventure. This journey in Bihar state, the poorest, most politicized Indian state and home to the Dalits, is a Buddah Path tour with teachers Shantum Seth, Stephen Batchelor, and Martine Batchelor. We, a mixture of Westerners, are there to see the sites of the Buddha’s life and learn about the history of the places associated with the life of Gautama Buddha. We may have been seeking devotion and history, but Stephen Batchelor was there to understand the connection of the Buddha to our times.
Stephen is a controversial author and teacher, who has espoused “agnostic Buddhism”, but who now proclaims Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, the title of his latest book. He describes the spirit in which he tries to understand the Buddha in a quote by theologian Don Cupitt, “Religion today has to become beliefless. There is nothing out there to believe in or hope for. Religion, therefore, has to become a deeply felt way of relating yourself to life in general and your own life in particular.”
Taking science and secularism as the value culture of the 21st Century, Batchelor questions traditional Buddhism. Challenging the truth and the relevance of doctrines of reincarnation and karma, he seeks a dharmic expression free of Indian cosmology and metaphysics. But he also asserts that to reject organized religion in favor of an eclectic spirituality is not a satisfactory solution. Doubt, therefore, and the spirit of inquiry become essential tools for finding the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings for our secular times. Batchelor states the challenge, “The point is to not abandon all institutions and dogmas but to find a way to live with them more ironically, to appreciate them for what they are- the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning- rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed.”
In that spirit in 2005, our band of pilgrims followed the Buddha path, visiting the worn stupas and dusty mounds of dirt considered sacred places by millions for two thousand years. With the lense of modern science and anthropology, Batchelor suggested that much of what is presented as Buddhism today are doctrines and practices that evolved long after the Buddha ‘s death. His conclusion was that no single form of Asian Buddhism is “likely to be effective as a treatment for the particular maladies of a late-twentieth-century-post Christian secular existentialist” like himself. Nor will it ultimately resonate with a secular society whose paradigm is science.
What spoke to him most directly in the Buddha’s teaching were not those ideas derived from classical Indian thought, but four core elements of the Dhamma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time: the principle of conditioned arising, the process of the Four Noble Truths, the practice of mindful awareness, and the power of self- reliance. Batchelor says, “These four axioms provide sufficient ground for the kind of ethically committed, practically realized, and intellectually coherent way of life Gotama anticipated.”
For me this pilgrimage in 2005 began as an exploration of history and a search for devotion and ended as a lasting journey inward. Batchelor’s spirit of inquiry and doubt, and his challenge to contemporary orthodox Buddhist religion continues to infuse my practice and life as a Buddhist. Renouncing consolation by giving up the hope of belief allows me to continue to walk with the Buddha.