Adaptive Buddhist viewpoint relevant to modern world

by Ian Harris, Otago Daily Times, 9 Mar 2012

There are some lessons to be learned from a former Buddhist monk about nudging religion into the modern world, writes Ian Harris.

Otago, New Zealand -- Understanding religion from a secular viewpoint, without assuming any hotline to heaven, is the approach which many cutting-edge Christian thinkers take today. They are not abandoning their 2000-year heritage, but trying to give it substance in a vastly changed world.

And they are not alone. Some adherents of an even older tradition are on a parallel track, as became clear during the visit to New Zealand last month of a former Buddhist monk, Scottish-born Stephen Batchelor.

Author of seven books on Buddhism, Mr Batchelor has steeped himself in the diverse Buddhist traditions of Tibet, Korea and South-east Asia. Each of those cultures adapted the Buddha's teaching to fit their own times and circumstances, but Mr Batchelor does not identify with any of them.

Instead, he is bent on nudging Buddhism into the modern secular world. In this he has been strongly influenced by liberal Protestant thinkers of the past 70 years who have been pioneering a new path for Christianity.

"I found in them both the inspiration for a living transformation of religious tradition, and an example of it," he says.

For example, where scholars of the Jesus Seminar in the United States set most store on texts from the earliest years of the Christian era, Mr Batchelor goes back to Pali texts (a variety of Sanskrit) closest to Siddhartha Gautama, who lived some 450 years before Jesus. When the texts are studied in their ancient Jewish or Indian settings they reveal more clearly the original teachings of the founders of their faiths.

There are other parallels. Jesus the Christ (or anointed one) and Gautama the Buddha (or one who has awoken) are worshipped as God by millions of their followers. Secular-oriented scholars say they were never divine beings, but entirely human.

That frees both Jesus and Gautama to be re-imagined for our own time and place. Released from the elaborate theological and institutional structures built upon their memory, they emerge as men of extraordinary vision and insight.

Over centuries the teachings of Gautama and Jesus about a new way of life morphed into belief systems, but today their original emphasis is being increasingly affirmed.

There is obviously a tension here between loyalty to the tradition and responsibility to the future. Mr Batchelor fears the attempt to preserve the tradition intact is condemning it to irrelevance.

"The difference between modernity and the traditional Asian forms of Buddhism is now so great that in a secular world it is necessary to leave behind the belief system and move towards a way of living," he says.

"Belief-based religion is basically about consolation. It not only explains everything, but also shows how to achieve some sort of salvation - nirvana in Buddhism, heaven in Christianity. Putting the emphasis on pursuing a way of life in the here and now changes the dynamics completely."

Which explains why Buddhists seeking a credible modern faith are rejecting belief in reincarnation, while among Christians the classic creeds and rituals are losing their potency.

Meditation is so closely associated with Buddhism that in the West it has cornered the meditation market. Mr Batchelor sees a danger in that: it could reduce the ideal of cultivating the whole personality to a self-improvement technique. A religious culture cuts deeper than that.

The goals of Christianity and Buddhism - freedom grounded in love, integrity, mindfulness of the whole of life, and the courage to be fully the people we can be - also overlap.

And for secular Buddhists like Mr Batchelor, the gold is not the goal but the path they are on. Traditionally, the nirvana of bliss and inner peace is achieved through release from the cycle of death and rebirth. His modern expression of this is the stopping of deep habits of mind to cultivate another way of living, releasing people from being determined by their instinctual drives.

"That stopping is nirvana, even when it occurs only momentarily. It is an inner awakening, the resonance of the Buddha within."

Christians will see a parallel here with the apostle Paul's concept of the Christ within, a life-centred symbol of love, grace and transformation.

Mr Batchelor thinks an evolving Buddhism can learn from Christianity - and an evolving Christianity can learn from Buddhism, especially by recovering the contemplative tradition that was once so prominent in the churches.

The imaginative adaptation of both religions offers a philosophy, ethic, psychology and way of life that embraces all aspects of existence without the need to appeal to any supernatural order of being.

That will be a step too far for many, but for others a refreshing new prospect.