Stephen Batchelor, “Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain


An Interview with Stephen Bachelor about his latest book.

Whenever I read or listen to Bachelor, I always feel he is missing a third alternative (or maybe numerous alternatives) between “religious” Buddhism and “secular” Buddhism. I have positive views of many of his criticisms of the institutional religions that grew historically out of the Buddha’s earliest teachings. But worldly society and aspirations are also a kind of religion, and I don’t think the Buddha was really out to teach a doctrine of “human flourishing” or a new and improved kind of society. My feeling is that the Buddha’s deepest teaching represents a profound renunciation of almost everything that propels ordinary human life and social existence.


One thing I have noticed is the controversies between people like Stephen Batchelor and Theravada Buddhists like Ajahn Brahm, even though they both claim to base their teaching on EBT. Which to me is quite strange. How can that be possible? And isn’t this just causing more and more doubts in practitioners minds? And isn’t doubt a hindrance? Perhaps what this is telling us is that EBT writings can be interpreted in so many ways that it’s not possible to derive meaningful guidance from them?
I think it greatly helps one’s practice if we have one clear teaching for all followers, as Sensei Ikeda has managed to do for Soka Gakkai members. Not only is he a great scholar, but he has been able to impress the mark of his mind and his heart on the whole organization, in such a way that internal diatribes are basically nonexistent and members feel like ‘many in body, one in mind’ :grinning:


It’s only one clear teaching for all followers if you ignore all of the other teachings out there.


I mean one clear ‘interpretation’ of the sacred texts. This way we use that interpretation and go ahead and practice. In EBT I get the impression that everyone has a different interpretation. Still they all say that their teaching is the right one, because it’s based on the suttas!


Every text has numerous interpretations, this is a basic understanding of modern literary studies. Nichirens works have been interpreted in different ways by the numerous Nichiren sects in Japan and the lotus sutra has been interpreted in countless ways by Asian Buddhism. I don’t know what you’re on about.


This is obviously a comfort to you, but it is quite unsettling to me. It sounds like a personality cult.


First of all I would argue that all Buddhists are cultivating the cult of the Buddha, so provided the person you look up to is worthy of your respect I don’t see anything wrong with it.
In addition, I would argue that as Ajahn Brahm has noted in several of his talks, what he is doing when giving a Dhamma Talk is to brainwash you. So every teacher is in a way brainwashing you. I prefer to be brainwashed by someone I can really look up to - and who sent me plenty of positive ‘vibes’ when I was privileged enough to meet him - namely our beloved Sensei Daisaku Ikeda. :pray:


Yes, it looks to me like an artificial dichotomy, particularly when people feel they have to reject one in order to embrace the other. And of course BuddhaDhamma has adapted to many different cultures over the centuries - this is an adaptation to western secularism.


Sensei Ikeda has interpreted the Lotus Sutra in a clear and actionable way for all Soka Gakkai members.
In contrast, Theravada Buddhists at Amaravati interpret EBT in a completely different way from Theravada
Buddhists at Perth (the former believe in an unconditional, eternal consciousness, the latter say that this is utter bs (I take it bs is right speech since I have heard a monk use that word).
So while different monasteries agree on having lay people support all their material needs, they do not at all agree on the teachings they dispense to lay people in exchange for their support - which to me is strange, since logic implies that one of the 2 teachings on the nature of consciousness I mentioned above must be wrong (they can’t be both right at the same time, at least if you believe in logic).
In addition lay people like Stephen Batchelor who also has his books at Amaravati monastery’s library, still teach a different thing.
So what is a lay person going to Amaravati with the hope to learn about Buddhism to conclude?
She will probably think that she’s welcome to bring food to the kitchen (there are very numerous signs indicating where the latter is located, so it’s not possible to get it wrong on that subject); however, as far as Buddhist teachings are concerned, she’s likely to come back more confused than she was when she arrived to bring Dana. At least that’s been my experience, which I have decided to humbly share here.


Forgive me if your post doesn’t sound very humble, in fact it sounds like propaganda for your particular religious group.

Your comparison is of course not an equitable comparison, you are comparing one sect with an entire religious category.

If we instead compare Theravada Buddhism with say, Japanese Buddhism or even Nichiren Buddhism, we will see the same kind of debates regarding scriptural interpretation. Nichiren himself spend most of his life engaged in sectarian strife, attacking other sects and saying they were going to hell, etc. After him, Nichiren schools also disagreed on many things, as a quick cursory reading of the wiki article shows: Nichiren Buddhism - Wikipedia

Unless you are claiming that all sects of Japanese or Nichiren Buddhism interpret the Lotus sutra in the same way that Ikeda does?

Either way, its up to everyone to make up their own mind by reading the suttas and the work of reputable scholars, understanding the arguments they are making and so on. Theravada monasticism is actually much more open minded in this respect, letting each monastic make up his own mind regarding doctrine and it doesn’t throw people out if they don’t follow the party line. There’s more religious freedom there it seems.

I’m sorry you have had difficulties regarding the different interpretations in Theravada, but you will find the same kind of disputes in all religions, this is the nature of samsara. It’s not anything particular to Theravada Buddhism, in fact, in Theravada, it is well known that these kinds of questions about the mind and the Dhamma are difficult and require deep thought and an open mind instead of commitment to a fixed view. Let me let the Theravada philosopher Buddhaghosa have the last word here:

This is just a sketch. An in-depth understanding of this question of the [function of consciousness] is only to be gained on the strength of one’s selection after considering views, one’s estimation of reasons, one’s prefer-ences and credences, learning and testimonial reports.
(Atthasalini 74)


I am sorry if I gave the impression of doing propaganda. I am not trying to do that. I have been genuinely trying to learn about EBT and visiting monasteries, and i have had unhappy experiences since I find that on a number of things they indeed have strict rules (getting fed by the lay people by a certain time, not being ‘allowed’ to do many things so that the lay people have to do those for them etc); but on doctrinal questions everyone has a different opinion, so that I have been honestly wondering what those teachings were about, apart from having to bow to monks; each of which will teach a different thing.
It’s a bit like going to a university where each professor teaches a different theory about the same subject. You can deduce that some will be right and some will be wrong. Yet you are expected to bow and pay you respect to all of them. That is pretty weird to me…
Also my comparison was between two monasteries of the same tradition, the Ajahn Chah tradition, to which both Amaravati monastery and the Perth Monastery of Ajahn Brahm also belonged before he was excommunicated.
Which brings me to a final point concerning your remark about

Perhaps there is a lot of freedom in interpreting the EBT (which for me is confusing as I am trying to learn) but apparently no freedom at all if you want to assert the equality of men and women. In this case you are kicked out. This does not seem a very ‘free’ environment to me.
With metta


Ideally, IMO, ‘you’ (and this is a rhetorical ‘you’ rather than a personal ‘you’) ought to be bowing (or whatever other means of respect is culturally normative) and paying respect to everyone, regardless of if X or Y person teaches right, teaches wrong, even acts right, acts wrong, etc.

There is a bodhisattva in the Lotus Sūtra named 常不輕 (Cháng Bùqīng, Jōkufyō, Sadāparibhūta, ‘Never Disparaging’). This bodhisattva might or might not be based on a real figure, as little fantastical or mythic elaboration is given to him in the text, and the chapter (20 in the Kumārajīva recension, used in East Asia, and the basis of most English translations of the LS, and 19 in the Sanskritic Nepalese recension) it believed by some to have circulated as an independent text, much like the Tathāgatāyuṣpramāṇaparivarta (Ch 16/15), before being incorporated into the latter ending sections of the LS.

Within, the mythologically attested Śākyamunibuddha tells of this great bodhisattva, and his profound practice:

This bhikṣu, to all there were to see, whether bhikṣu, bhikṣuṇī, upāsaka, upāsikā,

to all obediently bowed in praise and said:

‘I deeply revere you all, never daring to disparage any. Why is this? You all, each and every, tread the bodhisattva path, and will attain Buddhahood’


The Lotus Sūtra is mythological in nature, and not everything that is contained within it, needless to say, fits with the dispensation as attested to in the early Buddhist texts. But if we approach this more neutrally, not as “fake Buddhavacana” or “heretic literature” (and this involves ignoring a lot of the polemics against the old, historical, dispensation, śrāvakayāna, in the text, a hefty feat indeed!), and see it simply as “devotional literature”, that IMO this is one of the most universal and profound devotional practices in the text.

The practice of Sadāparibhūtabodhisattva is presented in the LS as a brief string of twenty-four characters:


The founder of the school of Buddhism upon which SGI finds its foundations, Venerable Nichiren, a thirteenth century Japanese Taimitsu priest (whom some have not-unwarrantedly characterized as a fire-and-brimstone street preacher) whose Buddhist education was in the Tendai curriculum of his time, directly commented on the fable of the practice of the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging.

In his writing, ‘On the Buddha’s Prophecy’, he says this of the 24 characters associated with Sadāparibhūtabodhisattva’s practice:

The twenty-four characters of Never Disparaging and the five characters of Nichiren are different in wording, but accord with the same principle. […] Bodhisattva Never Disparaging was a practitioner at the initial stage of rejoicing; Nichiren is an ordinary practitioner at the stage of hearing the name and words of the truth.

(WND I:43)

The ‘five characters of Nichiren’ spoken of above are:


This is the Chinese title of the Lotus Sūtra. With 南無 (namu, namaḥ, ‘[I] bow’) preceeding it, this metaphysical universal concept expressed as a mantra is the chief practice of the Nichiren-derived schools of latter Mahāyāna Buddhism (which in turn are related to the larger movement of ‘New Kamakura [single-practice] schools’, like Jōdo Shinshū). This is what Nichiren Buddhists are saying when they chant ‘Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō’.

It is a heavily conceptual chanting practice, the practice of which is likely somewhat at odds with the fetter of reliance on ritual in śrāvaka (sīlabbataparāmāso, Kv3.5, etc) & earlier bodhisattva Buddhism alike.

But, objections to the stress on what is essentially a chanting ritual aside, if we look at the above gosho (御書, ‘honoured writing’) and take it at face value, the ōdaimoku (お題目, ‘[practice of the] honoured title’) of Ven Nichiren is to be in accordance with the principle of the words of Sadāparibhūtabodhisattva:

I deeply revere you all, never daring to disparage any. Why is this? You all, each and every, tread the bodhisattva path, and will attain Buddhahood

How to realize such a practice? Universal reverence. A difficult task.


I tried to make it somewhat more relevant to secular Buddhism. Alas!

Secular Buddhism can take what it needs, what is functional, from X or Y Buddhist tradition or teaching, historical or mythological.

If secular Buddhism has anything to take from the Lotus Sūtra, the fable of the practice of Sadāparibhūtabodhisattva is a good candidate for one of those things, IMO.



Is Ajahn Sumedho still resident at Amaravati?


Like I said, you’re going to find disagreement in all of Buddhism, and in all religions. If this is something that troubles you, you’re going to always be disappointed.

Regarding sexism, many Buddhist groups struggle with these issues (I’m sure including SGI and Japanese Buddhists). Since I would prefer this thread not to turn into a drawing out of all the dirty laundry of Buddhist groups, I’ll leave it at that. I can’t speak to the Thai forest tradition since I have no experience with them.


I think he is in Thailand. There is Ajahn Amaro who basically teaches the same things. I got the impression he is like a son to Ajahn Sumedho.


I agree, it’s better to speak about things which we know about, and keep silent when we don’t know about the subject from first hand experience. I have known SGI for 20 years through direct experience, and I have been visiting Theravada Monasteries for the past year since I found out about EBT, so I am expressing my impressions here on these themes. What one reads on the internet and in media can sometimes be inaccurate and even slanderous, even tough Tricycle has written some good articles about Sensei Ikeda in recent times.


I agree, it can be confusing, but bear in mind that “Theravada” is a broad category which includes a wide range of different schools, lineages and teachers. Similarly with Mahayana and Vajrayana.


Indeed. Fixed views can be comforting ( comfortable? ), but only for so long.