Seven years ago, when Buddhist scholar and former monk Stephen Batchelor embarked on a search for the real Siddhartha Gautama, rooting through over 6,000 pages of the Pali Canon—the oldest set of texts on his teachings, which provide glimpses into his social and political world—perhaps he didn’t even dream of the Buddha that would emerge from his research. Far from the picture we have of Siddhartha as a prince who grew up in a palace, who renounced it all and became the Buddha, attracting the rich and powerful as well as hundreds of monks and nuns by his teachings, until one day he just lay down and died, Batchelor’s portrait of the Buddha “is not that simple”. In his new book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, to be out in the US early March, this author of eight other books on Buddhism claims the Buddha was a man whose teachings were regarded by his contemporaries as not only radical, but “queer” enough for him to be denounced by one of his own former disciples as a “fake”, who not only managed to win the patronage of the three most powerful political figures of his time, but was worldly enough to survive in the midst of court intrigues, murders and betrayals, effectively quelling a rebellion within his own flock before he was done in by the ambitions of his own family. But it is Batchelor’s findings on the Buddha’s last days that are the most startling: in the last 10 months of his life, Batchelor says, the Buddha, old and ailing, saw his two main disciples die, one of them brutally murdered, and was forced to flee with a handful of loyalists from all the three political bases he had spent a lifetime building up, until he was possibly poisoned to death by one of his many rivals, leaving a pretender to take over the community after an intense power struggle.
The Buddha, according to Batchelor, owed his exile—and eventual death—to the same king who had lifted him to the heights of power: King Pasenadi of Kosala. According to the records, the king—the monarch of the most powerful kingdom north of the Ganges—and the Buddha—the son of a chieftain in one of the kingdom’s rural provinces—met for the first time when they were both about the age of 40. Hearing of his renown as a teacher, the king paid a visit to the Buddha’s retreat outside his capital city of Shravasti. At first sceptical, Pasenadi was soon won over by the Buddha, and asked to be accepted as his follower. “This was a—if not the—key moment in Gotama’s career,” writes Batchelor: with Pasenadi’s support, Gautama’s tenure in Shravasti was assured, and for the next 25 years, he spent every rainy season here in a grove gifted to him by a rich admirer, giving most of his discourses.
Pasenadi, according to the references that Batchelor so painstakingly culled from the Pali Canon, was a paranoid tyrant given to impaling his enemies—imagined or real—on stakes. His friendship with the Buddha, which lasted for the next 25 years, seems to have had little effect on Pasenadi. “The only time he is seen to benefit from Gotama’s instruction is when he follows his advice to go on a diet,” writes Batchelor. From “a bucket measure of boiled rice” he reduces his intake to “a pint-pot measure” and becomes “quite slim”.
Nor did the friendship improve the king’s suspicious nature, even when it came to the Buddha himself. For example, in one of the countless plots to discredit him by rival groups of ascetics, the Buddha was accused of sexual impropriety with a female renunciant called Sundari. When Pasenadi’s men found her body hidden not far from the Buddha’s hut, nothing could persuade the king of his teacher’s innocence. Fortunately, the king’s spies soon discovered the plot to discredit the Buddha.
Some 15 or more years after they first met, the tyrant and the monk turned from friends into relatives: hoping for a male heir, Pasenadi decided to marry from the Buddha’s homeland, Sakiya or Shakya. The king approached the Buddha’s cousin, Mahanama, who had taken over the governorship of Shakya after the death of the Buddha’s father. It was a signal honour for the Buddha, but there was a problem: the notoriously proud Shakyans refused to allow any pure-blooded woman to marry outside their clan, forcing Mahanama to send to the king the illegitimate daughter he sired through a slavewoman, passing her off as a noblewoman. It was a deception that, Batchelor says, was not just dangerous and foolhardy, but would lead one day to a bloodbath, and the Buddha’s exile from Kosala.
It’s impossible, points out Batchelor, the Buddha wouldn’t have known of the treachery, considering his close relations with all the main players. There’s a misconception, according to Batchelor, that the Buddha cut off all ties with his own community in Shakya after he left home. On the contrary, the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu after his enlightenment, reconciled with his family, and some of his most important followers were, in fact, his cousins, including Devadatta, who subsequently tried to overthrow him, Ananda, who memorised all the texts, and Aniruddha, who was present at his death. As a result of the deception, Batchelor writes, the Buddha “was placed in an impossible situation”: to reveal the situation would have put his life’s work in jeopardy, costing him the support of his most powerful patron, and to remain silent would have made him appear complicit in it. The Buddha chose silence, but he was no doubt aware of the precarious nature of his tenure in his Kosalan headquarters in Jeta’s grove.
Meanwhile, the slave girl not only gave birth to a son, Prince Vidudabha, but was able to fob off all questions regarding his maternal ancestry until he was 16, when she finally relented and let him go on a visit to the Shakyan headquarters in Kapilavastu. Vidudabha’s visit went off uneventfully, until his departure. One of his soldiers, returning to the Shakyan guesthouse to retrieve his sword, overheard a woman muttering as she scrubbed with milk the seat which Vidudabha had used: “This is where the son of the slave-woman Vasabha sat!” Inevitably, there was an uproar when the Kosalan royal party heard of it. The young prince vowed: “When I gain my throne, I will wash it with the blood of their throats.”
When Pasenadi heard of the Shakyans’ treachery, he vented his fury on his wife and son, stripping them of their royal positions, cropping their hair, and returning them to the condition of slavery. It fell on the Buddha to plead with the king on their behalf. He prevailed for the moment, but his idyll in Jeta’s grove was over. From then on, Batchelor writes, the Buddha was on the run, losing one by one all the three strongholds from where he spread his teachings. In Rajgir, the Magadhan king Bimbisara, his first royal patron, was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Ajatasattu, who imprisoned and then starved his father to death.
At the same time, cracks began to appear within his own monastic community. His cousin Devadatta, who was also Ajatasattu’s mentor, plotted to overthrow the Buddha. Some of the texts say Devadatta tried to assassinate the Buddha by dropping a big boulder on him, and sending a wild elephant in his way. But the passages that give the most information about Devadatta say he tried to persuade the Buddha to step down on grounds of age. The Buddha dismissed the proposal decisively, saying: “I would not even ask Sariputta and Moggallana (his most indispensable and senior-most monks) to head this community, let alone a lick-spittle like you.” Till the very end, Batchelor says, the Buddha was adamant about not appointing a successor, stating that his teachings were his only successor.
Having failed in his bid for power, Devadatta then walked out of the community, taking a sizeable section of the monks along with him. But eventually, the Buddha’s two senior-most followers, Sariputta and Moggallana, healed the schism and persuaded the renegade monks to return to the fold.
There were other cracks within the community: the Buddha’s former attendant, Sunakkhatta, a nobleman of Vaishali who had left the monastic order, denounced him in the parliament of Vaishali as a “fake”. While the Buddha received the news with his usual calm, it was clear that he was losing favour even in Vaishali. That’s probably why, reasons Batchelor, the Buddha didn’t stay in his usual place during his last retreat in Vaishali, but in a village outside the city walls by himself, telling his monks to go and find lodging in the city for their support.
Frail and elderly, the Buddha suffered yet another blow in the last months of his life: both Sariputta and Moggallana died within two weeks of each other—the latter brutally murdered, according to the commentaries, by the supporters of Jains, who saw the Buddha as a great threat to their own survival.
For the Buddha, Batchelor points out, his last few months were dogged by a sense of failure—the society in which he’d worked a lifetime spreading his teachings was erupting into violence. The new king of Kosala, Vidudabha, was invading the Buddha’s homeland and the Buddha was powerless to prevent the massacre that ensued, with the royal troops being ordered to kill every Shakyan they see, “sparing not even infants at the breast”. So he headed south for Rajgir, where Ajatasattu was planning to cross the Ganges and invade the Vajjian republic, despite the Buddha’s advice to the contrary. An exhausted and sick Buddha then wound towards home again, in Kapilavastu, accompanied by less than half-a-dozen monks of the many hundreds of followers he had in his heyday. And when he stopped at the town of Pavi, 75 miles from home, instead of the hospitality of the rich and powerful he had always enjoyed, he ended up at the house of a butcher or blacksmith. For Batchelor, the Buddha’s death is the biggest mystery of all. The texts only say that a man called Cunda the Smith invited the Buddha and his attendants, including Ananda, home. “From the moment it was offered to him, it seems that Gotama suspected something was amiss with the food,” writes Batchelor. According to the texts, the Buddha told his host: “Serve the pork to me, and the remaining food to the other monks.” When the meal was over, he said to Cunda: “You should bury any leftover pork in a pit.” Then he “was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhoea”. His only response was to say to Ananda: “Let us go to Kusinara.” Which, under the circumstances, Batchelor says, sounds like, “Let’s get out this place.”
Batchelor puzzles over this passage included in the Pali Canon: why did the Buddha prevent the others from eating the pork? Did he suspect it was poisoned? He had no shortage of enemies, Batchelor reasons—Pava was not only in the Kosalan province adjoining Shakya, but was also a shrine to his principal rival, Mahavira, who is said to have died there a few years previously. Only a few months ago, his senior-most disciple Moggallana had been killed by hired assassins of Mahavira’s followers.
But what’s the point in killing an old man who is already dying? Batchelor points out that the best revenge the Buddha’s enemies could have taken on him was to kill not him but Ananda, his faithful attendant. Ananda was the only one left after the death of Sariputta and Moggallana to have memorised the entire teachings of the Buddha. “If you killed Ananda, you killed Buddhism,” points out Batchelor. “By insisting that he alone be served with the pork and the leftovers be buried, the Buddha prevented Ananda from eating it.” The Buddha “hastened his own death”, according to Batchelor, “in order that his teaching would survive”.
But the monk for whom the Buddha laid down his life ended up being upstaged by a relative outsider even before his cremation pyre was lit. Mahakassapa was a Brahmin from Magadha who became a monk towards the end of the Buddha’s life. He arrived with a large group of monks just before the pyre was lit, and insisted that the cremation not take place till he too had paid his last respects to the Buddha.
This episode marked the beginning of a power struggle, with the newcomer claiming to be the rightful successor of the Buddha, and taking over the community. “There are two sutras in the Pali Canon where Mahakassapa is very dismissive, almost abusive in his dealings with Ananda,” says Batchelor, “dismissing him as a mere ‘boy’”. Ananda responds to this by pointing to his head, and saying: “Are these not grey hair?”
On the face of it, the future of Buddhism after the Buddha’s death looked very bleak: at the cremation itself, when various kingdoms and republics applied for a share of his relics, the Kosalans conspicuously didn’t want any of him. And with a stern, elderly Brahmin at the head, sidelining Ananda, it looked set to become just another Indian religion controlled by priests. But that’s what’s so extraordinary about the Buddha, says Batchelor. “Here’s a person dealing with all these ambitious relatives and kings, and yet in the midst of his struggles establishes his dharma sufficiently well so that we are talking about it now, 2,500 years later.”
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Compilers Ignored the Historical Chronology
What made you start on a search for the real Buddha?
My interest was triggered by a project which took me for the first time to the places where the Buddha lived and taught--Shravasti, Kusinagar, Gaya, Vaishali, Rajgir, Boddhgaya. For the first time, I gained a clear geographical sense of the Buddha's world. It created a sort of framework within which I started to read the early Pali texts. I started to look at the texts in a different light. Until then, like many Buddhists, I had a very vague idea of how the Buddha's life actually unfolded. The Pali canon is like a window into 80 years of early Indian history, the first real historical text. In some ways it represents a human world, one where the gods are not really significant and its human beings struggling to control their own destiny. I also began to see the Buddha's world in terms of the political and economic developments at that time. The more I read and the more I tried to piece the story together, particularly from the enlightenment to his death, I began to be more aware of the people occurring in these fragments of history. And slowly I was able to piece together a story.
If all the details you discovered about the Buddha's life and times are in the Pali canon, how come it's not well known?
One of the reasons his story was not well known was because the original compilers of the texts were not interested in the details. They were only interested in preserving the dhamma--the teachings of the Buddha. They organised the canon not according to the chronology but according to the length of the discourses. So you get little length discourses, long discourses, discourses connected thematically, discourses unified by using numericals to identify them. By dividing the canon that way, they destroyed inadvertently any sense of historical chronology. It's only in very few texts where you actually have a sustained piece of narrative, an actual story. But when you put together all the little fragments of history, pulled out of the great resource of texts, you find that the little fragments are not arbitrary--not just there for decoration--but constitute a coherent whole. They all make sense one to the other, even the minor historical characters are consistently portrayed. There appears to be buried in the Pali canon, roughly five or six thousand pages long when translated, lots of little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You carefully put them together and you get a picture. Not entirely complete, but complete enough.
And what is the picture?
The standard picture that people have of him is this prince who grows up in a palace, renounces it all and becomes a Buddha, roaming around giving wonderful talks and hundreds of monks following him around. He teaches and teaches and one day he lies down and dies. They don't think much about the enlightenment, but he had a task to achieve after that: to establish his teachings and his Sangha, the community. He says this on a number of occasions. These were his mission in life. In order to do that, he can't just wander off with his monks somewhere in the Himalayas. He has to be able to find situations where he would have sufficient access to wealth, and where he would also have the guarantee of security. The only places where this could be provided on any scale were the emerging cities: Rajgir, Shravasti and to a lesser extent, Vaishali. He also had to deal with a very conflicted, troubled, violent and vicious world with kings and newly emergent monarchies and growing armies.
We know from the text that he lived to quite an old age--he died at the age of 80. And we also know that he was enlightened at the age of 35 or 36. This means that for 45 years he was actively involved in teaching. And his teachings were not restricted to a handful of monks and nuns living in monasteries but addressed all levels of society, top to the bottom, in a period of Indian history where there was a transformation from very small republics that dominated the Gangetic plains to the emergence of the first monarchy which set the scene for the eventual unification of India under Chandragupta Maurya about a 100 years after.
The other thing the Buddha was continuously engaged throughout his life was the care he had for his own community in Sakiya. It is sometimes talked about that after he left home, he somehow abandoned his responsibilities to his family and clan and just wandered off and became a monk. This is not entirely correct. After the enlightenment, he came back to Kapilavastu, reconciled himself to his family, and some of his most important followers were in fact his cousins: Devadatta, who subsequently tried to overthrow him, his son, Rahula, who was accepted into the order as a young boy, his stepmother, Mahapajapati, the first nun, his cousin Ananda, who memorised all the texts, another cousin, Aniruddha who was a close follower of his and present at his death, and importantly, his cousin, Mahanama, brother of Anirudha and Ananda, who succeeded him as the head of the Sakiyas on the death of the Buddha's father, Suddhodana. So one of the aspects of the Buddha's renunciation, when he leaves Sakiya at the age of 29, is essentially renouncing his role as the future leader of the Sakiyan people.
But Sakiya wasn't really a kingdom?
Sakiya was one of the original ancient republics of India. It was not very big, a few hundred square miles at the most. By the time of the Buddha's birth, it had ceased to be an independent republic governed by a council of elders and had become a province of the kingdom of Kosala with its capital in Shravasti. It was a community that was governed by representatives of the leading families, with one of them as a nominal head. At the time of the Buddha's birth, his father Suddhodana was the head of the council that governed the internal affairs of the Sakiya, but they were the vassals of the king of Kosambi.
Does that mean the Buddha became far more powerful politically than his father was?
In some ways, yes. He moved in very powerful political circles. He had the support of some of the most powerful political figures of that time: King Bimbisara in Rajgir and King Prasenajit in Shravasti. He must have been a very, very good organiser, a very powerful leader of men and women, someone who really had a clear vision of what he was going to do and he set out to do it. This is not someone who just sits down and meditates and gives a talk occasionally. He's deeply implicated in his world, not a renunciant, detached from the world like Mahavira.
How did he win the support of the powerful kings of the time?
The reason the kings supported him--I don't think this was necessarily because they had a clear understanding of his philosophy -- but because they saw him as some sort of genius, an inspirational figure, someone who had a lot of charisma--a visionary, as what we'd call such a person today--and they wanted to be associated with him. But it was also a period of enormous change: the first cities in India were only just emerging and the old ways of life which the Brahmins and those who followed the Vedas represented, essentially the agrarian lifestyle, was changing primarily because of economic development. There was now sufficient surplus through the immensely fertile production in the Gangetic area. The surplus production not only created a merchant class--very wealthy, including bankers - but also provided rulers with enough wealth to establish standing armies and enabled young men and women to leave home and survive off begging, to pursue religious, philosophical and other ideas. There is a movement to an unknown future. They would have seen their own emergent towns and cities as the beginnings of a new social order, somewhat overshadowed by the power of the Persians to the West. So I think these kings were supporting these armies and monks because they had civilising ambitions. And of course, in the end, a hundred years after the Buddha's death, this did in fact happen: the emergence of the Mauryan empire. The first king, Chandragupta Maurya was a Jain, and Ashoka was a Buddhist, so they were clearly following, as it were, a movement in which Jainism and Buddhism were seen as alternatives to the Brahmanical religion, and there was a constant struggle between the different tendencies.
Did the conflict with Brahminism exist in the Budhha's time?
No, that started after Ashoka's time. During the Buddha's lifetime, there was not these clearly defined camps, they had not really emerged. Clearly, the Buddha was very critical of Brahmanical thought. He was critical of the social system it legitimised, its metaphorical and religious ideas which he dismissed very directly. He had no time at all for any notions similar to that about God--he completely wiped that out of the picture. He is very suspicious of any kind of eternal soul. And when you start to look at some of the Buddha's key ideas, they are clearly framed in opposition to the orthodoxy of the Upanishads or Vedanta. I think he saw his critique of the mainstream ideology of his time as an integral part of his attempt to create a new order, a new kind of world, as it were.
Is there any physical description of the Buddha in the early texts?
None at all. The only passage I found which has a physical description of him only says that he didn't look any different from anybody else. He would have been fairly anonymous, like any Buddhist monk. The picture you have of the Buddha with this rather funny hairdo, the long earlobes and all of this, it's an image that comes from a much later date, although it's prefigured in the Pali canon because there must have been during the Buddha's time a legend within the Brahmanical literature that spoke of a Mahapurusha--a great person--who will come at some point in history and he will bear these 32 characteristic physical marks, and there are two references in the Pali canon where a Brahmin hears that such a Buddha has appeared in the world and he goes to the Buddha in order to ascertain whether in fact he has these 32 marks, which he then proceeds to do and identify each one. Now that is clearly a piece of legend. So the images of Buddha don't refer to his actual physical appearance but the fact that certain people believe he was a Mahapurusha who would therefore have to have these distinguishing traits.
You say the Buddha was in exile towards the end of his life?
In Rajgir, the king now was not Bimbisara, but Ajatasattu, who had not only overthrown his father, but had plotted with his teacher Devadatta to overthrow the Buddha. It appears that in Vaishali too he had lost his support. During the last rain retreat in Vaishali, he doesn't stay in his usual place, which is a house with gabled roof in the great forest, but he stays in a little village outside the city walls by himself and he tells his monks to go and find lodging in the city for their support. Now this is strange--why does he do that? One possible reason for this is because he had recently been denounced to the Vaishali parliament by a man called Sunagatha, who was formerly a monk in the Buddhist community who then disrobed, left the community and went to the Vaishali parliament and said, "The monk Siddhartha Gautama is a fake." So we know that he's probably lost favour in Vaishali, he's lost favour in Shravasti, his homeland is under attack, the Magadhans were treating him just as a sounding board for their next war. What you see in fact is that the Buddha falling out of favour essentially corresponds to the loss of his main benefactors. During the last nine or 10 months of his life, he's constantly on the move, which again suggests this fact of exile.
You also conclude that the Buddha may have been deliberately poisoned?
He had no shortage of enemies. Pava, where he had his last meal, was one of the two principal towns of Malla, the Kosalan province adjoining Sakiya. Karayana, the general of the Kosalan army now laying waste to Sakiya, came from Malla, possibly from Pava itself. Pava was also where Mahavira, the ascetic founder of Jainism is said to have died a few years earlier, and when the Buddha arrived there was already a shrine to his principal rival. The text only says that the Buddha is invited to a meal along with his attendant monks at the house of a man called Cunda the smith. Cunda prepared a meal of sukaramadhava, tenderised pork, something like ham or bacon. From the moment it was offered to him, it seems that the Buddha suspected something was amiss with the food. "Serve the pork to me," he told his host, "and the remaining food to the other monks." When the meal was over, he said to Cunda:" You should now bury any leftover pork in a pit." Then he "was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhoea, which he endured mindfully without any complaint." His only response was to say to Ananda: "Let us go to Kusinara", which under the circumstances, sounds like "Let's get out of this place."
Why do you think he ate the pork if he knew it would make him sick?
It makes perfect sense to me--he hastened his own death in order that his teaching would survive. Why would they kill an old man who was already dying? No point surely. We know the Buddha is very, very ill. What would be the point of poisoning an 80-year-old man who was already probably extremely ill. Doesn't make sense. Why did the Buddha say, "Give me that food, and don't give it to any of the others." I don't think the food was intended for the Buddha, it was intended for the others, particularly the monk Ananda, his cousin, who was the one who held in his memory everything that would exist. If you killed Ananda, you killed Buddhism. I think Ananda was the target. This is a somewhat original way of reading the text. But once you put the incidents into a chronological sequence, it's very difficult not to draw that conclusion.
He could have had it buried without anyone having to eat it?
Perhaps he didn't know for sure, but didn't want to take chances. It's true, you could explain it in another way, but all we have to go on are these few lines in these texts, it's not a huge amount, we'll never know.
You say there was a power struggle after the Buddha's death?
Well, fortunately, the canon does not end with his death. It ends with the first council, held nine months after his death. And it describes quite clearly a power struggle: a struggle between Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and a monk called Mahakassapa, who became a monk later in his life and is described as a former Brahmin. He claims to have received a kind of direct transmission from the Buddha. He wasn't there when the Buddha died but arrived with a number of monks a week after his death, just before the cremation pyre is to be lit. Mahakassapa paid his last respects to the Buddha, the pyre was lit, and then the power struggle began. Mahakassapa does not consider Ananda to be fully enlightened, and therefore not qualified to have any leadership role in the community. Mahakassapa claims he's fully enlightened and that he is the successor of the Buddha, even though the Buddha has explicitly declared that he will have no successor. Funnily enough, the Buddhist community now described him as the father of the Sangha. Now father in Latin is Papa, or Pope, the very thing the Buddha didn't want happened within months of his death. Mahakassapa then organised the first council in Rajgir. He basically took over. And there are two sutras in the Pali canon where Mahakassapa is very dismissive, almost abusive, in his dealings with Ananda. He dismisses Ananda by saying he's just a boy. "You don't know your measure, boy." And Ananda replies: "But are these not grey hair?" It's very odd--why are those passages there, why haven't they been edited out? There are a number of little passages, quite detailed, that tell us about the conflict before the first council.
Was Mahakassapa's take-over a bad thing for Buddhism?
Mahakassapa took over at a time of great uncertainty. A war is about to break out. In some ways, if there hadn't been a figure like that, a strongman or patriarchal authority, then perhaps Buddhism wouldn't have survived. I think that has to be acknowledged as well--you sort of need people like that to take control, and to get a job done. Ananda would have perhaps been too gentle, he would have wanted consensus, he would have wanted to do things in a more accountable sort of way.
Has unravelling his story reduced your admiration for the Buddha?
I think I admire him even more now because I know him as a person rather than a mythic figure. I think the admiration I had for the Buddha until I started doing this work was for a rather idealised figure, but now you have a picture of a person who you can imagine very vividly, living on this earth, in this country, dealing with these characters--these ambitious relatives and kings--and in the midst of all these struggles, establishing his dharma sufficiently well so that we are talking about it now, I find this extraordinary.
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A Buddhist Vision of Life Beyond Consumerism
By Craig K. Comstock
27 October, 2010
Are there alternatives to consumerism? Other than a dreary alternative such as loss of a job, a prolonged economic downturn or the stealth tax of inflation?
What is it, this consumerism? It's the assiduous promotion of cravings which our economic system, at least until recently, has somewhat satisfied: "Your neighbor has it. You will be happy when you get it. You can have it now on easy credit." The amping up of desire for stuff is so normal here that it's hard to imagine another approach to life.
Recently, I came across an old box with photos of my maternal grandfather and some clippings from his youth. There were already ads when he was young, but they seem so naive, displaying an object for its own sake, not associating it with sexy women, power, speed or species that vehicles are named after.
My grandfather had much less materially than my parents, but as I know from taking long walks with him, telling stories, playing games, helping him build a boat, he was happy. How was that?
I thought of him when reading the new book by Stephen Batchelor, author of the wildly popular Buddhism Without Beliefs. Buddhist practice teaches that life is full of suffering and suffering comes from cravings. The trouble with cravings is that they often can't be satisfied and, when they are, the objects may vanish or degrade. And, in any case, they usually don't "make us happy," or, if so, not for long.
In this view, a system of implanting cravings by sellers who hope to profit by them, of exacerbating desire, would be crazy. The question is, why would you do that? Of course, people need the basics such as shelter, clean air and water, food, clothing, education, health care, the ability to work. But as Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin asked in their classic, Your Money Or Your Life, to what extent does it serve you to mortgage your life to get more and then more?
The service offered by Batchelor is to get to what he regards as the core of Buddhist practice, free of "accretions" imposed by various Asian traditions. Of course, some westerners are attracted to Buddhism in part by the rich Baroque trappings of the Tibetans, the subtle Theravada traditions of southeast Asia or the spare paradoxes in Zen cultures. But other westerners want a practice they feel is more suitable for a scientific and democratic society.
Having been a monk in two of three Asian traditions (Tibetan and Korean), Batchelor sought what he regards as Buddha's basic realization. In his writing, he even set aside such crucial elements of traditional Buddhism as rebirth and karma, not denying that the founder taught these doctrines, but attributing them to the Hindu world in which he'd grown up and arguing that they aren't necessary to Buddha's genius as expressed in the "four noble truths."
Within Buddhism, Bachelor's heresy is not to do without the concept of divinity (the founder was agnostic about metaphysics), but rather to set aside any realm other than our life on earth and to accept the possibility of death as oblivion. This is a delicate point because the prestige of Tibetan religious leaders, starting with the Dalai Lama, depends in part on the claim to be reincarnations and because the finality of death is almost unimaginable to most of us.
What a waste to obtain the necessities of life, guard against danger, form attachments to other humans and accumulate knowledge, and then poof, it's all gone like photo albums when a house burns down. This would be almost as unthinkable as a process of evolution. What human would design so slow, wasteful and unfair a process? Batchelor's point here would be that the gist of Buddhist dharma practice is being aware of what's here, now, rather than placing hope, without evidence, in a happier life after death.
Insofar as we can see the situation of Gautama, he had been living the life of a prince. His house was not in foreclosure, he was not forced into the life of a wandering ascetic. The "middle way" that he eventually found was not forced on him by the global peak of oil production, by global warming or by economic breakdown. He felt his realization or awakening was superior to the affluent life of his time.
In the phrase of the brilliant British journalist George Monbiot, "nobody ever rioted for austerity." Monbiot acknowledges this political fact in a book called Heat, about a painstaking and ambitious plan for reducing carbon emissions enough to avoid the worst ravages of global warming. A masterpiece of understatement, his phrase conjures the unlikelihood of a parade with placards calling for less affluence; it fails to mention the widespread phenomenon of denial.
I don't know whether the Buddha ever rioted for austerity, but he certainly counseled against arousing rampant desire, especially as a way of life. But what can we do instead? Change comes eventually less from just a critique of a prevailing system than from the building of a new system, of something that doubters can jump to and help in the next stage of building.
In his new book, Batchelor tells his personal story, reaffirms his understanding of dharma practice and offers speculation about challenges that Buddha faced in creating a new way of thinking and acting. This last task is especially tricky, because the writings called the Pali Canon are roughly as far in time from the founder as we from Shakespeare. (Imagine if we had the plays only through an oral tradition.) But Batchelor asks himself, given what we do know, how would a man with Buddha's basic awakening proceed in the world of his time? We'll never know for sure, but a coherent account at least provides an armature on which to build.
To return to the original question: Is there an alternative to consumerism? If the future will be less affluent than the past, for whatever reasons -- we don't know -- will we cling to a system that is failing, or will we have adopted new basic premises? If the latter, what are values that don't depend on having a growing amount of stuff?
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