Stephen Batchelor on Self and Solitude

Although the history of Western encounters with Buddhism is over a century old, Stephen Batchelor has offered a new approach he calls "agnostic Buddhism" through his books and writings since the 1980's. What does he have to offer in regards to a philosophy of solitude and self? In three interesting books and a number of articles, Batchelor lays out a groundwork for an accessible philosophy of life, but he falls short of providing the framework and the mechanics of self and solitude, not progressing beyond his initial outlay of logic and rumination.

Alone With Others (1983)

Batchelor's quest is for an existential Buddha, essentially rethinking the heart of the historical Gotama's quest with the latter's confrontation of existential questions in reflecting on old age, sickness, and death. This foundation is laid out in Alone With Others, where Batchelor relies almost entirely on Martin Heidegger's categories of being-alone and being-with-others. This, it will be seen, has its own problems.

Batchelor's deconstruction of Buddhism is not a demythologization like Rudolf Bultmann's approach to Christianity. Nor is it a scholar's critical reconstruction in the style of John Dominic Crossan and others working on the "historical" Jesus. Perhaps its affinities are closer to the lyric conceptualization of Ernst Renan's Jesus or Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, where a philosophical sentiment reigns in a sympathetic attempt to capture the life and thinking of a sage. Except that Batchelor intends to extract a great deal more than these portraits, but a great deal less than what pious Eastern accounts have added.

Batchelor is concerned that the interpretations and embellishments to the life and teachings of Gotama over the centuries obscure the core of Gotama's existential questions, the very style in which he posed them and intended to work them out. Batchelor believes that Westerners will be misled in solving their own existential questions if their introduction to the historical Gotama (it's hard not to make the parallel to the "historical" Jesus) is seen through the eyes of religion, not philosophy.

Gotama solves the being-alone question with the ideas of contingency, impermanence, and rejection of the atman or self. The result should be "authentic being-alone." as Batchelor puts it. Gotama solves the being-with-others dilemma by resolving to compassionately share his insight with others rather than keeping it to himself. The result should be "authentic being-with-others." That sharing is the model of the bodhisattva, and reflects the transition from arhat in Theravadan tradition to bodhisatva in the Mahayan traditions.

Here is the first problem. Batchelor see inauthentic being-with-others as "desirous attachment, aversion, and indifference, " which he contrasts to equanimity.

Equanimity sees others as they are; no one is essentially desirable, no one is essentially repugnant, and no one is essentially insignificant. All are essentially sentient beings, hoping and fearing, loving and hating, living and dying.

This insight becomes the basis for interaction which is society. Society does contain a degree of civility without attachment, as in the concept of justice, although Batchelor hardly elaborates. He sees these virtues strictly in terms of relationships, and sketches out values for what he calls a "culture of awakening," which is an idea of great potential. But he remains restricted, ironically, to a vision of fulfilling these virtues only in the context of his revised and modernized Buddhism, as dharma and sangha.

In his next major book, Buddhism Without Belief, came the opportunity to extend this secular vision of Buddhism and to elaborate on what Alone With Others begins.

Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997)

In a later interview, Batchelor acknowledges that this book could well be titled "Buddhism Without Dogma," since the original title projects a sense of skepticism. The author delineates his own notion of "agnostic Buddhism," by which he means a Buddhism with Gotama's questions not resolved into tenets of belief but open to the particular path pursued by the individual, with Gotama as his existential guide.

The arguments of this book are presented in three sections: 1) Ground, 2) Path, and 3) Fruition. The first section revisits the notion that "the Buddha awoke from the sleep of existential confusion" to recognize what Bathelor calls four "ennobling truths." He does not want these truths to become ossified tenets of belief or religious precepts but working experiences. He calls dukkha or suffering "anguish," and prefers the term "awakening" for the traditional term "enlightenment" because he demurs from an enlightenment that presents itself as a goal or mystical experience. Instead, the focus is on the methodology of the historical Gotama, and his immediate successors, which Batchelor considers to be free of metaphysical speculation and focused on existential questions.

Historically, Buddhism has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalized as a religion (i.e., a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests). At times this process has been challenged, and even reversed (one thinks of iconoclastic Indian tantric sages, early Zen masters in China, eccentric yogins of Tibet, forest monks of Burma and Thailand).

Interestingly, Batchelor is here referring to hermits when he speaks of exceptions to the institutionalized model. Yet he does not pursue these models to make his point. He does not realize that this model is what guarantees the vitality of Buddhism, and , indeed, the processes that Batchelor pursues. Perhaps the hermits -- who tolerated but demurred from institutionalized settings -- would undermine Batchelor's concept of sangha and community.

At the same time, as critics of Batchelor might point out, the institutionalization of Buddhism provided the safeguards to scriptures, analysis, discussion, and community, especially in the face of challenges in historical India and elsewhere over the centuries. Similarly, the encounters with other cultures of Asia provoked new and insightful reinterpretations based on culture, philosophy, religion, and thought. Though Batchelor admits to not having a background in Christianity, the historical parallels to Christianity are obvious. The historical figure of Jesus was largely preserved by written texts, exegesis, and practice fostered by institutionalized religion over the centuries. Eremiticism may have preserved the heart but institutions have preserved the body, however unhealthy.

Batchelor's approach in Buddhism Without Beliefs moves from classic existentialism to an outright agnosticism, by which he means suspension of assent to metaphysical propositions. He argues that this method follows the Buddha's own advice to Malunkyaputta about one being wounded by a poison arrow and the urgency of the wounded one not to pursue questions about the assailant, the type of poison, the bow used, etc., but to just get the arrow out. Hence, reincarnation is viewed by Batchelor as a Hindu vestige, rebirth as "an interactive cluster of processes," and emptiness as a trajectory or matrix of contingencies. Even compassion is redefined as the "absence of self-centered craving," wherein the dangers of worldly values is in subverting  the virtues of this selflessness.

All of these redefinitions do presuppose a skepticism rather than a n agnosticism. How many Zen koans presuppose a kind of agnosticism, but not a skepticism. We may not know all the mysteries of the universe, but we need not doubt them.

Perhaps the most important points Batchelor offers are in the section called "Fruition," namely, freedom, imagination, and culture. These issues extrapolate Buddhism into the realm of practicality. Freedom is always relative: freedom from something. Self-centeredness misconstrues freedom as independence from things rather than understanding of things. Understanding the contingent nature of things brings freedom, for we are never free of them. Understanding brings freedom from the cycles of suffering and craving, complimented by mindful awareness, which brings us closer in touch with what is real, such as the breath and the workings of mind. But also closer in touch with the mystery of existence, wherein no question or demand is made, only awareness. Agendas and expectations fall away. Life's ambiguity becomes something merely to observe.

Awakening is both a linear process of freedom that is cultivated over time and an ever present possibility of freedom. The central path is both a track with a beginning and an end and the formless potentiality at the very center of experience.

This freedom brings the freedom to creatively realize the possibilities of self-creation, which is imagination. Not unexpectedly, Batchelor prefers the word "self-creation" rather than transcendence. However, he sees this creativity or imagination at the service of others -- in keeping to the notion of "being-with-others" -- which leads to what he calls a culture of awakening.

But Batchelor never develops the notion of a culture of awakening as more than a redefined and extrapolated sangha. He does not pursue useful currents of engaged Buddhism or the kind of work proposed by, say, Buddhadhasa in Thailand with his "dhammic socialism," or E. F. Schumacher's Buddhist economics, or even the very general applications of Buddhism to modern social issues reflected in the Dalai Lama's Ethics for a New Millennium or Robert Thurmon's  Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well. Understanding is limited to a purely abstract philosophical understanding, just as the culture of awakening is barely touched upon as more than an ideal.

A culture of awakening is forged from the tension between an indebtedness to the past and a responsibility to the future. ... [It] cannot exist independently of the specific social, religious, artistic and ethnic cultures in which it is embedded. It emerges out of creative interactions with these cultures without either rejecting or being absorbed by them. It will inevitably assume certain features of contemporary culture, perhaps inspiring and revitalizing some dimensions of it, which also maintaining a critical perspective.

Living with the Devil (2004)

In Living with the Devil, Batchelor uses the metaphors of Mara and Satan to address the psychological and ethical dimensions of Buddhism. Here are some useful thoughts on both Mara and Satan as obstructions to the path, not personalities to confront and argue with. This approach permits the author to explore hindrances to our individual paths, and to revisit favorite notions of self and society. At least here Batchelor is a little more forceful in speaking about the culture of awakening and criticizing modern culture.

The creation of a nonviolent world is founded on an empathetic respect for the inviolable freedoms and rights of others. The oppressed call out to be free to pursue a path, unconstrained by he constraints placed on them by Mara's latter-day army of governments, religions, superpowers, and market forces. ...

This passage updates the content with a timely allusion to war and globalization, certainly relevant in a book about good and evil, though it comes at the very end of the book.


The chief weakness of Batchelor's approach to Buddhism is quickly perceived by the traditional Buddhist but also by the Western non-Buddhist. Batchelor employs the tools of Western rationalism and science exclusively. He never acknowledges the bias of his tools or seeks to justify them -- especially given the abject failure of many Western values in the world context. Nor does he ever acknowledges himself to be part of the efforts of over a century of "modern" Buddhism, as outlined by David S. Lopez among others. Into this history of modern Buddhism, chiefly inspired by Westerners, agnostic Buddhism fits squarely, if uniquely.

Batchelor's tendency to substitute and thereby change the meaning of Buddhist terms ("anguish" for suffering, "awakening" for enlightenment, "ennobling" truths for noble truths, etc.) is bound to mislead the novice to Buddhism. It also cuts the reader off from centuries of fruitful reflection on Buddhism, especially in the Chan/Zen tradition where dogma, scripture, and logic are not taken for granted either. Indeed, the agnostic approach nearly becomes a formal materialism rather than a Middle Way, and the dilution of enlightenment tends to favor old-fashioned rationalism. Batchelor's pronouncements are not so much "don't know" as "doesn't matter." He picks and chooses the psychological elements, rejects the import of mythological or metaphysical outright, and transforms enlightenment into a collective experience.

The chief vulnerability is the absence of what must be called spirituality, which is neither religion nor logic, neither emotion nor cerebralism. Does agnostic Buddhism speak to the heart? That is the basis of society, not reason. Imagination has a stronger component of creativity than Batchelor is willing to concede, a stronger component of individuality as solitary and productive. Insight and understanding -- if not enlightenment -- are very solitary efforts and experiences. Even if the bodhisattva returns to share compassion with others, it is compassion, not enlightenment, that is shared.

Though the moral and ethical components of Batchelor's work are constructive, there is lacking an ascetic core that reduces his efforts to a vague psychological well-being and no more. Who will be attracted to an agnostic Buddhism that does not engage real-world predicaments with a solid path? J. Krishnamurti could claim the territory Batchelor covers while never appealing to any specific tradition -- though he was clearly influenced by both Buddhism and Western thought.

Interestingly, Batchelor's chief claim to be following the early sutras for the historical Gotama never recognizes the radical solitude that earliest Buddhism espouses, even from the beginning. He sees the evolution from arhat to bodhisattva as inevitable, when, of course, it was a process of ages and of cultural shifts. The emergence of the bodhisattva  presupposes a body of religious premises that reduce compassion to concepts of charity and duty. At one point Batchelor alludes to this:

The self-creation of individuation and the world-creation of social engagement cannot exist apart from each other. They are united within a common culture, which configures them in a meaningful and purposeful whole.

But where we see these elements integrated creatively is in the Tibetan Buddhist hermits Milarepa and Shabkar, and in the radical eremiticism of the Chinese and Japanese hermits like Han-shan, Saigyo, Ippen, and Ryokan. These hermits understood not only their philosophical convictions but also the nature and potential of society. There is no attempt to reconcile the social and the solitary in agnostic Buddhism. Society and common culture are not successfully defended. More telling for a philosophy of solitude is Batchelor's conclusion that "Individuation and social engagement become two poles of a culture of awakening."

Ironically, Batchelor is far more approachable and incisive in his essays and talks. Some fruitful articles include "The Lessons of History," "The Freedom to Be No One," "Existence, Enlightenment and Suicide," and the interview "Absolutely Not!" In these formats, the writer sweeps up a number of themes with a deft command of literature, philosophy, and erudition, and does so for a more well-read but observant reader than in the generalized books.

Overall, the development of a philosophy of solitude can be well served by a non-dogmatic approach to Buddhist principles that Batchelor presents. But Batchelor is not interested in developing that philosophy. He clearly stands alone if not friendless in his school of thinking among other than Westernized Buddhists. Though he cannot write what he does not believe, it would be an interesting extrapolation to see this form of modern Buddhism work out a more reflective basis for solitude in an interdependent world.


  1. Alone with Others: an Existential Approach of Buddhism.
    New York: Grove Press, 1983.
  2. Buddhism Without Beliefs: a Contemporary Guide to Awakening. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.
  3. Living With the Devil: a Meditation on Good and Evil.
    New York: Riverhead Books, 2004.