Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi
At one point Batchelor tries to escape this predicament by suggesting that, in speaking of rebirth, the Buddha was merely adopting "the symbols, metaphors, and imagery of his world" (p. 15). Later he admits that the Buddha "accepted" the ideas of rebirth and kamma, but he still finds it "odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to adopt ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus accept as an article of faith that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of brain function" (p. 37). Batchelor himself cannot endorse these "metaphysical theories." It is not that he actually rejects the idea of rebirth. He claims, rather, that the most honest approach we can take to the whole issue of life after death is simply to acknowledge that we don't know. To accept the doctrines of rebirth and kamma, even on the authority of the Buddha, indicates a "failure to summon forth the courage to risk a nondogmatic and nonevasive stance on such crucial existential matters" (p. 38).
To justify his interpretation of the Dhamma, Batchelor resorts to a variety of arguments that gain their cogency through selective citation, oversimplification, and rationalization. For example, when discussing the "four ennobling truths," Batchelor points out (in accordance with the First Sermon) that these truths are "not propositions to believe [but] challenges to act" (p. 7). This, however, is only partly true, firstly because, in order to act upon the truths, one has to believe them; but even more pointedly, because Batchelor fails to mention that the tasks imposed by the truths acquire their meaning from a specific context, namely, the quest for liberation from the vicious round of rebirths (see MN no. 26; SN chap. 15). To lift the four Noble Truths out of their original context, shared by the Buddha and his auditors, and transpose them to a purely secular one is to alter their meaning in crucial ways, as Batchelor does when he interprets the first truth as "existential anguish." For the Buddha and Buddhist tradition, dukkha really means the suffering of repeated becoming in the round of rebirths, and thus, once one dismisses the idea of rebirth, the Four Truths lose their depth and scope.
David R. Loy
The lamas Batchelor studied with could not respond to his concerns, but one senses that the intellectual Gelugpa curriculum influenced him more than he realized, since later chapters reveal that his approach to Buddhism remains primarily cognitive and rational. His view seems to be that although there is a role for meditation, the Buddhadharma we need today must fit with what Western modernity already knows about the world, not challenge it. It seems ironic that someone so concerned with adapting Buddhism to the West did all his formal training with traditional Asian teachers who apparently knew very little, if anything, about the West. At the same time that Batchelor was struggling with Asian forms, many Buddhist communities were becoming established in the West, where teachers and students were working hard to reconcile Buddhism and Western culture, usually without the extreme cognitive dissonance that was so disturbing for Batchelor.
B. Alan Wallace
Rather than adopting this idea from mere hearsay, the Buddha declared that in the first watch of the night of his enlightenment, after purifying his mind with the achievement of samadhi, he gained “direct knowledge” of the specific details of many thousands of his own past lifetimes throughout the course of many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion. In the second watch of the night, he observed the multiple rebirths of countless other sentient beings, observing the consequences of their wholesome and unwholesome deeds from one life to the next. During the third watch of the night he gained direct knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, revealing the causes of gaining liberation from this cycle of rebirth.6 While there is ample evidence that the Buddha claimed to have direct knowledge of rebirth, there is no textual or historical evidence that he simply adopted some pre-existing view, which would have been antithetical to his entire approach of not accepting theories simply because they are commonly accepted. There would be nothing wrong if Batchelor simply rejected the authenticity of the Buddha’s enlightenment and the core of his teachings, but instead he rejects the most reliable accounts of the Buddha’s vision and replaces it with his own, while then projecting it on the Buddha that exists only in his imagination.
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