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le 8 mai 2013
This book is going to be very surprising to many readers because it more or less tells the true story of millions of young people of the Baby Boom who got tired of western narrow morality and hierarchical alienating if not frustrating and castrating society in the West up to 1968 when the Hippie movement, Bob Dylan and a few others broke the mould and left these young people without a model. So they moved out. You have to understand most of these movers were from the middle class, and even at times the upper middle class. The poor did not even have the idea, certainly not the opportunity, of moving out. The chains were too heavy.

The most surprising fact concerning these emigrants out of the west is that they looked for both exotic cultures and practices and at the same time the most esoteric beliefs they could think of, in fact not think at all, they could let themselves be captured by. Being from that generation but from the working class, under the lower middle class, I could not move out that easily; So I went to Africa on a cooperation program, then I went to the USA on a personal working program, and then to the USA again on an exchange university program. My freewheeling experiences remained in Europe, including some working summer camps in East Germany, after ten or twelve summers spent on farms, working day after day, especially Sundays. It is only more recently that I moved to the vast Orient, Sri Lanka, to Buddhism and a three months placement in a Buddhist temple.

My experience makes me understand Stephen Batchelor’s enterprise at that time and also makes me understand that some time along the way his quest will have to make him scream “Fake! Sham!” but I fully understand that he will and does retain the essential learning he accumulated during his time in the Tibetan, or Korean Buddhist institutions, and that heritage is the Dhammapada, though he has a slightly wider approach than just the Dhammapada or even the Abhidhamma. But we must understand that Stephen Batchelor rewrites or even rewires history. His whole escape at the beginning was nothing but a full submissive adherence to what he found there, even if today when he writes he seems to be taking some distance with some of the most foolish Tibetan assertions.

“. . . in the Kangyur and Tengyur (the Tibetan Buddhist canon). There you would learn that the earth was a triangular continent in a vast ocean dominated by the mighty Mount Sumeru, around which the sun, the moon and planets revolved. Driven by the force of good and bad deeds committed over beginningless former lifetimes, beings were repeatedly reborn as gods, titans, humans, animals, ghosts or denizens of hell until they had the good fortune to encounter and put into practice the Buddha’s teaching, which would enable them to escape the cycle of rebirth forever. Moreover, as followers of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle), Tibetan Buddhists vowed to keep taking birth out of compassion for all sentient beings until every last of them was freed.” (p. 6)

And he knows he believed in all that at once and without any pangs of questioning. As he says “It was prompted by my craving for belief.” (p. 7) Hence to escape that eternity of dramatic if not tragic or purely inhuman rebirths he accepted the idea that life is nothing but suffering, a cyclical repetition of suffering from which you can only escape via “nirvana” that is to say perfection in thoughts, speech, acts and all other elements of one’s life that brings enlightenment, or awakening, and makes you step out of this hellish life of all humans. What’s even worse, a good enlightened and awakened Buddhist who could escape into nirvana and become a Buddha has the duty to serve his fellow human victims and refuse to take nirvana and vow to stay in the rebirth cycle to serve again as a Boddhisattva till the very last human being is finally saved from this “suffering.” Even the worst ideologies advocated in the Middle Ages by the Christian churches, or by some Christian sects up to today, or by Islam in its most fundamentalist versions have not put forward such a bleak picture since for a good Christian who has suffered a lot, like Job, death will be a reward and a liberation in the Christian dimension, or for a good Muslim who has fought for the triumph of his faith will be transported into paradise after his death with the compensatory gift of a few virgins.

In that line of total mental alienation the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a masterpiece that anyone who does not want to become a bigot of any faith has to read and ponder upon. It is a real salvation when you finally understand that all that is nothing but a mental construction meant to deal with a hostile world and totally out of touch today in a world that is not exactly dominated by the survival of the species, at least in numbers, since the real agenda should be to reduce the numbers.

But let’s enter one more minute into Stephen Batchelor’s nightmare.

“Every morning I could become the glorious and mighty bull-headed Yamantaka: ‘with a dark azure body, nine faces, thirty-four arms, and sixteen legs, of which the right are drawn in and the left extended. My tongue curls upward, my fangs are bared, my face is wrinkled with anger, my orange hair bristled upward. . . I devour human blood, fat, marrow, and lymph. My head is crowned with five frightful dried skulls and I am adorned with a garland of fifty moist human heads. I wear a black snake as a brahmin’s thread. I am naked, my belly is huge and my penis erect. My eyebrows, eyelashes, beard, and body hair blaze like the fire at the end of time.’” (p. 23)

This is one of the essential source of cannibalism, vampirism and were-wolfism that have roots deep in the oldest religious devised by Homo Sapiens when confronted to the ice age, receding waters, advancing ice, and then the thawing period with mounting waters, receding ice, and all kinds of dramatic transformations in both cases. These Homo Sapiens colonies all over the world devised blood lust and religions based on that lust. Tibetan Buddhism has not been able to let go of this pre-Neolithic heritage. His conclusion though is brutal:

“I was being indoctrinated. Despite a veneer of open, critical inquiry Geshe Rabten [his master at the time] did not seriously expect his students to adopt a view of Buddhism that differed in any significant respect from that of Geluk [a Tibetan branch of sect of Buddhism] orthodoxy. I realized that to continue my training under his guidance entailed an obligation to toe the party line. This felt like a straightjacket.” (p. 45)

If I have insisted on this side of the book, and I could quote it a lot more, it is because Stephen Batchelor’s project is to desacralize and de-divinize Buddhism, to purge this deeply human and vastly creative philosophy and humanism that Buddhism is of all the feudal (if not frankly slave-age), medieval apparatus of subjugation and submission and subservience imposed on the faithful with two classes in the traditional (today exiled) Tibetan society: on top the professional monastic people who produce nothing and live on what they get from society, from the other class (in one word that is called parasitic exploitation in my dictionary) and the second class of those who work, produce what the monastic population needs to live in comfort (at the height of Buddhism in Tibet before the Chinese take-over 25% of the male population were in the monasteries living on what the rest of the population produced, especially male children to make this monastic nursery perennial), and eventually, not necessarily, what they, the populace, need to survive.

Stephen Batchelor states the existence or development of a third class in the world with the spreading of Tibetan Buddhism to the middle or upper middle class in the West. These refuse to follow the superstitious bigotry that thrives under the blanket of the smiling Dalai Lama. His smile charms but his real thought and action harm, to plagiarize an English motto from English Buddhist monks when the Dalai Lama visited this country. And Stephen Batchelor only considers the Mahayana Tibetan sphere. He should have studied the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) or Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka and South East Asia and he would have learned how Buddhist communities in Laos, with the help of UNESCO is building a real economy with their know-how and their knowledge in order to become sustainable as a community without having to rely on the people around them to feed them. That will not change their relation with the population but that will provide the monasteries with means to develop, create, produce some added value and even promote tourism with meditation camps and training sessions in Buddhist arts and music, not to mention the services they will be able to provide their surrounding population.

When this is understood we can wonder what remains behind, what Stephen Batchelor retains from Buddhism in his present life, and I will say a lot and I can only be skimpy on that lot.

There remains a long and serious attempt at reconstructing the real life of the real Buddha and the book is quite clear about his origin, not the son of a king but of what would be a provincial governor within a wider kingdom, with many wars around and inside and many plots and counterplots from one family against another at the top of this aristocratic slave and feudal agrarian society. You will have to read the book yourself because it is enlightening, awakening too. You may not reach nirvana but you will definitely start understanding how as soon as the Buddha was dead from some kind of slow poisoning a recent convert (a convert who was understanding there was going to be a free position in the hierarchy of this new religion that had important supporters and providers, or who was even preparing that free position behind the wings), a certain Kassapa, plainly took over the order and made it into a lasting religion though it will be rejected from India later on and pushed into Tibet to the North and abandoned to its own in Sri Lanka and South East Asia from which it moved to China to become the Zen tradition, to Korea and to the islands Taiwan and Japan.

Personally I am connected to the Theravada tradition that has no problem with living without gods, since they reject the concept and they have purified Buddhism from all the feudal discourse and practices and insist on the fact the monastic population is there to serve society with education, healthcare, benevolence, refuge, knowledge and so many other services, including of course meditation practiced to relieve the mind and the body of real suffering and to help people to find happiness and eventually liberation in “nibbana” (Pali word for Sanskrit nirvana)

Stephen Batchelor does not question the anthropological dimension of this Kassapa. From an old religion, Hinduism, with even older religions behind like the Bon religion in Tibet, emerges a new religion, the preaching of the Buddha, essentially carried by one man. When this man dies a self-appointed successor turns that potential project into a stabilized institution, Buddhism. In the same way from the old religion Judaism with older religions behind, emerges a new religion, the preaching of Jesus and his direct half brothers and some friends. The four brothers will die: one, Jesus crucified by the Romans at the demand from the priests of the Jewish temple; the second, James, stoned to death by decision of the High Priest of the Jewish Temple; and the two other brothers, Theudas (“Jude”) and Cleophas (Simon or Simon “son of” Cleophas – not Joseph) martyred. And then a self-appointed apostle of the gentiles, Paul, ex-Saul, invents Christianity out of a fully rewritten story. And later on from the Dead Sea Scrolls tradition and Abraham’s son from his slave servant, Ishmael, will arise another religion with the intervention of the self-appointed prophet Mohamed. What did these Indian and Middle-Eastern societies (and Roman Empire) find in these religions being born from older traditions? Why in these two cases three men took over the drama or the tragedy of death to transform what was essentially a personal, even if collective, venture, into a global (at least at the time) institution? Stephen Batchelor does not answer this question though it is always present behind.

Then the main Buddhist principles he retains are simple.

First of all think by yourself (p. 33 and 39). Zen Buddhism cultivates doubt (p. 65 and 71). And this is based on one of the oldest discourses of the Buddha, the famous Kalamas discourse.

“The Buddha: . . . Do not go by oral traditions, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of the speaker, or because you think ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them. . . These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things if undertaken and practiced, lead to welfare and happiness, then you should engage in them.”

It is obvious from this very old discourse that the Buddha did not privilege “suffering,” in Pali “dukkha,” and that this “dukkha” is set in parallel with “happiness,” in Pali “sukha,” the two words being built on antagonist roots “du-“ and “su-“ with the suffix “-kha.” “du-” applies to something that has a negative dimension including that could cause injury or pain. “su-“ is absolutely parallel and applies to something that has a positive dimension including that could bring joy and happiness, if not bliss. Unluckily in standard Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism only “dukkha,” translated since Rhys Davids, the founder of the Pali Text Society in London at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, as “suffering” recuperating the narrow Tibetan vision, the identical Hindu vision in India and the good old Christian tradition of the valley of tears drowning in a sea of lachrymal fluids, if not blood.

This false and misleading translation sticks to Buddhism because the Dalai lama himself and the global Tibetan Budhhist organization are imposing it in the media. My practice of Theravada Buddhism is in perfect agreement with the Kalamas discourse: both “dukkha” and “sukha” have to be taken into account. Life is an alternating succession of positive and negative elements.

Then, and Stephen Batchelor is not clear enough on this subject, man has six senses and not five, the mind being the sixth sense. In Theravada Buddhism and in the Budhha’s teaching it is quite clear that the world is a reality outside ourselves that cannot be denied at all. Then this world is only captured by us via our six senses. The five material sensorial organs are simple to understand: hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch (plus all kinds of internal sensors in the body). But the mind is difficult to understand. The mind is attached to the neo-cortex that builds it as a virtual construct from the circumstantial, existential, experiential and situational surrounding context as received as nervous impulse from all the senses. This mind, like the neo-cortex is first of all flexible, adaptable, and can be remapped according to new circumstantial, existential, experiential and situational surrounding contextual elements. This is in perfect agreement with the first precept from the Buddha: you must become aware of the exact context in which you are and at the same time the exact state in which you are.

As long as the mentalists of this world go on making the mind something immaterial, they will run into the dichotomy body-mind, or body-soul, or body-psyche, or whatever other pair of concepts seen as antagonist. The conception of the mind emerging here is essential.

It is the surrounding conditions and the real state in which I am in these surrounding conditions that produce via the work of my six senses a behavior, an action, a thought, or whatever initiative, be it willful, instinctive, unconscious or anything else, my mind and my body will take. Stephen Batchelor is finally, along with others, understanding that the Buddha never negated the “self.” In fact Stephen Batchelor does not insist enough on the three basic concepts of Buddhism. First, “anicca” and the observation that everything is changing, that nothing is permanent. This concept is often translated “impermanence.” If nothing is permanent, then second everything is going through successive cycles or birth-life-death-rebirth. The point is that it is simple to understand that for a plant that grows from a seed and produces more seeds before dying. It is the same for man. Every single experience will have a beginning, a development and an end and there is not reason to suffer, because, to take one common example in the field of Buddhism, the birth of a love affair is pure bliss, except to bliss-haters, and the love affair itself is pure bliss, even if with some difficult moments, except of course for bliss-bashers, and the end of a love affair, no matter how, has to be a simple event because nothing is eternal. So this love affair will end in a divorce, in a separation if we are speaking of a married couple of any kind. It can also just change from a very passionate physical affair to a very passionate mental and spiritual affair. In fact it can also be the reverse. Or it can also be the fact that the two people decide conjointly that they have to follow their own tracks that lead them to two different trails, but the love affair has been bliss and the separation is leading to more bliss.

Then “dukkha” is nothing but the couple “dukkha-sukha,” this cycle of necessary change in life and the acceptance of this change. A pain always covers a joy and a joy always carries a pain. Some can even enjoy a blissful moment so much that it becomes painful to them, and vice versa, some can enjoy a pain so much that they find it exquisite.

If we accept this “dukkha-sukha” emerging from “anicca” in the surrounding physically real and mentally virtual conditions the result is the emergence of the fact that nothing in reality, in real life is the same thing in two successive moments. That is “anatta” in fact badly translated as “non-self” or “not-self” or “unself.” Another word is needed, though I am for keeping the Pali concept and developing a lexicon. But we could think of “existential transient essence.” We must understand our mind can develop the concept of dog, but it is a concept not a permanent essence because there are dozens of different species, and each individual dog is different from all others even from all others in his own species, and every single dog is the locale of a cycle of birth-life-with-reproduction-death-rebirth-in-the-puppies, and at each moment that particular dog is different from what it was a minute ago and what it will be in a minute.

Then “awakening” is nothing mysterious, no trouble at all to understand.

When we accept what I have, along with Stephen Batchelor, explained awakening is pure bliss because it is first realistic about what is around me and what I am at one moment and what I could be at another moment, and the same about everyone else around me, Then it is the determination by my fully awake, or aware, concentrated and willful, equanimous and empathetic mind of a course of action, or thinking, that will make me what I will have to be for the time this situation will last. This can be bliss or danger and pain. The end is never programmed in some computer and you are free to build your happiness or your unhappiness, even if some may say that you are free to choose to accept the happiness or the unhappiness the world imposes onto or proposes to you. Bliss is the result of serendipity, though at times pain can be the result of the very same accidental discovery called serendipity. I was always so fascinated by this guest house, hotel and restaurant in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, whose name was Serendipity, in the middle of the fields and the jungle with wild elephants roaming around at night.

The main requirement here is that we get rid of our addictive, compulsive, neurotic, obsessive attachments that are often nothing but good or bad habits that cannot produce happiness because happiness is necessarily a construct, something we each one of us at each moment of our lives construct with our own hands and our own minds.

That leads us to Stephen Batchelor’s conclusion:

“I think of myself as a secular Buddhist who is concerned entirely with the demands of this age (saeculum) no matter how inadequate and insignificant my responses to these demands might be. And if in the end there does turn out to be a heaven or nirvana somewhere else, I can see no better way to prepare for it.” (p. 240)

His bet “à la Blaise Pascal” is in a way a relapse into believing. The very principles he has been defending of the awareness of the real complex context of each moment of life should prevent him from this casuistic remark. He has to be a realist and say, and that’s what I personally say, if that eventually did pop up, I will consider it then. That will only be one more river to cross. And the Buddha explained that when we build a raft to cross a river we do not take the raft along for the next river and we leave it behind for the next person who will want to cross the river. If there is another river ahead we will build another raft then, or we might have to swim across it. “I know each day will bring its task.” (Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830, Amherst, 1885, San Francisco)

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