cover image After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age

Stephen Batchelor. Yale Univ., $28.50 (408p) ISBN 978-0-300-20518-3

Zen teacher Batchelor (Confession of a Buddhist Atheist) argues that both sanitized and orthodox approaches to Buddhism undermine the ethical practices and intellectual rigor of what he considers to be the core of the religion. Batchelor sets out to delineate a “systematic theology” of Buddhism, whereby he reorients the emphasis away from nirvanic, enlightened transcendence and toward pragmatic living based on the dharma. He argues that through canonization and the passage of time, Buddhism became subject to orthodox viewpoints that only served to mystify and obscure its otherwise highly accessible ethics. Batchelor returns to the roots by examining the portraits of minor Buddhist characters, such as King Pasenadi and the traitorous Sunakhatta. By reconstructing their lives, his rationalist and logical approach reveals that the Buddha’s world was vulnerable, tragic, and impermanent. Batchelor argues that for these characters, the Buddha’s dharma teaching was primarily one concerned with “task-based ethics” rather than “truth-based metaphysics.” He does not denounce enlightenment but rather grounds it in practical application, demystifying an otherwise abstract and metaphysical concept. Those looking for a serious, secular reexamination of Buddhist ethics that acknowledges religiosity will find this book highly intelligent, rigorous, and absorbing. (Nov.)