Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stephen Batchelor, Secularism, and "Wrong View"

The Zennist brings up an interesting set of issues in his current post. Taking on the in vogue Stephen Batchelor, among others, he writes:

One can deplore the incursion of secularism into Buddhism by the likes of Stephen Batchelor and others. But one cannot stop the advance of secularism except by really understanding Buddhism from its own side in which the Buddha is allowed to speak for himself. This is a key matter because there are books about Buddhism that are essentially products of eisegesis. In other words, these books amount to the author reading his or her own ideas into Buddhism when such is not in the Buddhist canon. Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, is a perfect example of eisegesis. He interprets Buddhism as being secular, or somewhat the same as being fit for a modern secular world.

A number of modern Buddhist authors have a strong inclination to read into Buddhism what is, essentially, not there, seeing modern ideas in the Buddha’s teachings, instead. This, to be sure, is eisegesis (read into)—not proper exegesis where the meaning of what the Buddha said is drawn out hopefully making it clearer for the reader—but not fundamentally altering his teachings.

I tend to find The Zennist a bit stodgy and fundamentalist at times. However, I find these comments compelling in some respects. It's very true that there are plenty of books, teachings, and teachers out there who have bent Buddha into a pretzel trying to fit into the lives people already have. And then there are folks like Mr. Batchelor, who claim to have stripped the "trappings" away, while doing so through the trappings of their modern, "Western" filters.

I actually don't have much issue with secularism "creeping" into Buddhism. Many of the practices that occur in religious settings can also occur in secular settings - and there's benefit in both. It's not terribly important to me to "guard" the tradition. However, I do think it's valuable to have clarity about Buddha's teachings, and to be wary of people who suggest that they have the "pure" way figured out. What do you think?


Barry said...

I read this morning's post from The Zennist with the curiosity that he usually provokes.

He uses the distinction between eisegesis and exegesis to clarify different ways of examining the textual tradition, and this is a useful distinction.

However, I don't think that textual analysis is binary in this way. And, from my reading of Buddhism Without Beliefs, I don't think Stephen Batchelor falls into the binary trap set by The Zennist.

It's clear that Batchelor is not engaged in exegesis - drawing out meaning from the Buddhist canon.

However, there's no evidence that he reading his own prejuidices into the canon - the act of eisegesis.

Rather, I view Batchelor's project as one of stripping away cultural debris from the Buddha's teaching, in order to expose the bedrock.

This has nothing to do with Westernizing or secularizing the canon. Rather, it's more like scouring within the canon to see what we might learn.

I think of this process as "exogesis" - an invented term with echoes of excavating and exorcising.

One doesn't have to spend much time in the texts to see that Buddha continually refers to Brahman, devas and other such characters. What are we to make of this?

To reject these characters as fictions would be secularization. To accept them would be exegetical superstition. The middle way - the way of the exogenesist - would be to understand what the Buddha was "up to" when he used such language. My reading of Batchelor convinces me that he is pursuing this middle way - not The Zennist's binary way.

Nathan said...

Thanks Barry. I think you make some good points about The Zennist's post, which I agree seems caught in a binary that isn't there.

I guess the thing with Batchelor and others that bothers me is that nothing occurs in a vacuum. Saying that things from previous traditions are just add ons that can be stripped away(like reincarnation or rebirth) is problematic.

Zen, or Chan, for example, really can't be separated from the Taoism and some of the folk spirituality that was the bed it developed in. In fact, I'd argue that this is why it's so powerful.


MuSsang Jaeger said...

I would propose that "exogesis" is less of a Middle Way & more of a subtle form of racism.