Buddha was a wise person

Buddhism on the rise : Rebirth is a late invention

Catholic Day? Islam Debate? What about Buddhism, actually? At first glance, it seems to fit much better into the modern world than Christianity or Islam, for example. You don't have to believe in an almighty God to meditate, and top Buddhist representatives like the Dalai Lama work with scientists instead of hiding behind antiquated dogmas. But it is easy to overlook the fact that the Buddhist tradition is also full of claims to truth that no reasonable person today wants to accept, for example the teachings of karma and rebirth. And not only in Asia, also in Europe, many Buddhist organizations are as conservative and dogmatically encrusted as the Vatican.

You have to keep that in mind if you want to understand the extraordinary of Stephen Batchelor. Since the 1990s, the Briton has been advancing the project of non-religious Buddhism more eloquently and decisively than anyone else - as one of the most prominent teachers of mindfulness and Zen meditation worldwide, but above all as an author. “Buddhism for Unbelievers” is the name of his most successful book, in which he summarized his secular interpretation of the Dharma, that is, Buddhist teachings, for a wide audience. In doing so, Batchelor succeeded in something that apparently no one on the Christian side is quite capable of at the moment: a workable, at the same time intellectually convincing compromise between religion and atheism.

In Buddhist circles, Batchelor's stance is naturally controversial. But he also enjoys respect from those who disagree with him. Anyone who meets him personally experiences an English gentleman who is completely devoid of any rebellious or boastful attitude. "Buddhism has hardly changed in the last thousand years," he says, "I think some kind of reformation is overdue."

The historical Buddha has to be thought of as a clever therapist

In fact, much of what Batchelor says and writes sounds very Protestant. He wants to expose the original teaching of the Buddha so that his readers can come into direct contact with it, without the mediation of monks or lamas. “That is pure Protestantism,” he says himself. And names Protestant theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as sources of inspiration for his work.

According to Batchelor, Gautama, the historical Buddha, must be thought of as a wise therapist who tried to reduce suffering and to encourage ethical self-responsibility. Gautama consistently avoided questions about the origin of the world and the fate of man after death. His teaching was to serve the life of this world entirely. It was only in the centuries after Gautama's death, according to Batchelor, that beliefs such as karma and rebirth were adopted.

Batchelor's work now falls at a time when the mindfulness movement is enjoying worldwide success. In all major German cities, courses for Buddhist meditation techniques are offered, detached from their religious context and mostly under the name MBSR, the English abbreviation for "Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction". Health insurances subsidize the courses, the effects on well-being and health are scientifically investigated. Large companies like Google have been training their employees in meditation for years.

Batchelor also takes the political dimension into account

Some Buddhists are uneasy about this boom. They fear the sellout and abuse of their ideals in order to make people more efficient for capitalist competition. Batchelor does not share this concern. "Just because mindfulness, like everything in our world, can be turned into a commodity and sold, that doesn't devalue the thing itself." He insists that course participants gain inner freedom to ask existential questions. He also sees his books as an attempt to offer these non-religious meditators orientation.

Above all, he succeeds in pouring his interpretation of the Dharma into suitable literary forms, with his strongly autobiographical confessions of an unbelieving Buddhist as well as in his latest book, “After Buddhism. Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age ". In it, Batchelor approaches the historical Buddha through some figures from his environment - the volume will be published in German next year.

A new aspect in "After Buddhism" is that Batchelor tries to take into account the political dimension of a secular teaching. "Buddhism has never developed its own political ideology," he explains in an interview. "But conclusions can be drawn about the attitude of the historical Buddha." He was a republican, although the monarchy was on the advance in India at that time. He designed the community of his followers to be egalitarian, with no differences between men and women, lay and ordained.

Batchelor wants to go back to the sources

So was the Buddha a kind of proto-democrat? Batchelor rejects the term because it is too general. "It is clear, however, that Gautama never used the term 'guru'. For the time after his death he even ordered not to appoint a new leader. The Dharma alone should play the role of teacher. ”His followers disobeyed. After Gautama's death, the most experienced monks of the community took over the leadership, established hierarchies, formulated dogmas. "The resulting Buddhism is in many ways a betrayal of the Buddha's ideas," says Batchelor. With his project of a secular Dharma he wants to go back to the sources and start all over again.

Stephen Batchelor: After Buddhism. Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, Yale. 400 pages, 19,45 €.

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