What is a Buddhism that denies rebirth and karma, the metaphysical and moral motivations for the Buddhist path? And what is a Buddhism that hesitates to affirm the paramount institution of the sangha, for all its faults and human defects?
For some practicing in the Western dispensation, this is a Buddhism that is willing to honestly face its philosophical and institutional problems. It is certainly true that we are more conscious of the need for self-examination. Re-thinking or re-presenting the Dharma in new contexts is always necessary, and even those who go too far can open up interesting avenues for reflection. However, what calls for caution is the potential undermining of confidence in practice (shradda), and the spiritual reasons for cultivating religious trust in the first place.
For many years, Stephen Batchelor has been outspoken about his Buddhist atheism, reintrepreting (or, as he would perhaps put it, returning) Buddhism to a more basic form that does not involve religion. This sincere Buddhist leader continues to organize and attend conferences, talks, and congregations, which speaks well of his faith in a particular understanding of the Buddha’s Dharma. Yet true spiritual fulfilment in the Buddhist context surely demands a conscious doctrinal commitment to traditional teachings as well as an acceptance of the need for ecclesiastical continuity, lest the priceless Dharma disappear from the earth prematurely. As Ven. Zhi Sheng wrote in one of his columns on this publication, ‘Our ego nature tells us what we want to feel good. Our ego nature is not satisfied with the intangible. It wants arguments so it can pretend to be “right”.’
Part of Batchelor’s disrobing and ‘reinterpretation’ was informed by the darker shades of Buddhist history, such as the willingness by Korean monks to train in the military. And of course, monastic figures should always be held to higher standards of morality and ethical behaviour. Furthermore, the Buddhist way of life, its arts, and its cultures are indeed universal and can be enjoyed by everyone. But never have the shortcomings of fallible sentient beings been representative of the ultimate holiness of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Furthermore, as Linda Heuman of Tricycle wrote, ‘Our cutting-edge task is not to fit Buddhism into our world.’ Alarmingly, Buddhist atheism or existentialism, as an individualistic search that follows only a person’s fickle conscience and hidden biases, cannot allow continuity. There is no place for spiritual authority or orthodoxy, no place for a temple where the truths of Buddhism are protected and affirmed, and no legitimate ecclesiastical voice with which to transmit and diffuse for a Fourfold Community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. That is why Western Buddhism is not united about its vision of the Dharma. Conservative, Western monks like Bhikkhu Bodhi and the late German Nyanaponika Thera always stressed that radical attempts to reinterpret Buddhism’s doctrinal foundations cannot be heirs to the Buddha’s spiritual inheritance.
A woman cannot be only slightly pregnant and a Buddhist cannot be only slightly committed to the most basic teachings. Every major religion’s teachings involve tensions, paradoxes, and apparent contradictions. They demand coexistence alongside our contemporary culture of individualism, liberal values, secularism, and scientific scepticism. We might find notions of no-self and rebirth or Dependent Origination irreconciliable with our personal worldview. But we will have to decide whether grappling with these doctrinal tensions is worth the authentic spiritual fulfilment offered by the progenitor of these tensions, the Triple Gem.