The following from an academic paper entitled "A Critical Examination of the Agnostic Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor" by Majorie Silverman, Department of Religious Studies at McGill University (Montreal QC):
One question has framed this paper: Is Buddhism still Buddhism according to Batchelor’s agnostic interpretation? The answer arrived at through much analysis is yes. Yes, Batchelor’s Buddhism is still Buddhism, albeit a Buddhism stripped of many of its conventional trappings.
This conclusion has been arrived at primarily because Batchelor’s motivation, as evidenced throughout his books and as illustrated throughout this paper, is to make Buddhism comprehensible and accessible in order to increase its relevance in the lives of practitioners. His goal is to elicit an emotional response within practitioners that will in turn trigger inward questioning. In doing so Batchelor strips Buddhism down to its bare bones. He removes the spices so practitioners can taste its flavor. It is because of this strong and enthusiastic desire to perpetuate the Dharma, that it is impossible to accuse Batchelor of discarding the essence of Buddhism.
Secondly, Batchelor’s Buddhism is still Buddhism because he calls it such. He considers himself a Buddhist, as do other scholars and practitioners who take his work seriously. Batchelor refers to Buddhist texts, extracts from Buddhist terminology, translates from Buddhist manuscripts, and expresses no desire to call his spiritual tradition anything other than what it is – Buddhism. Although he advocates cultural dialogue, his work directly affects the permeable boundaries of Buddhist communities around the world. His thoughts and philosophies are not only about Buddhism, but they directly implicate Buddhism. For example, whereas certain new age traditions or cults draw upon Biblical sources, their philosophies do not necessarily impact on Judeo-Christian communities. This is not the case with Batchelor’s work. His agnostic ideas directly affect Buddhist philosophy and practice, because they are fundamentally about Buddhism.
It is evident that testing one’s level of commitment to a religious tradition is not as straightforward as testing pH levels with litmus paper. Determining whether a religion’s boundaries are still intact is a highly subjective enterprise, especially in the case of a religion such as Buddhism in which there is no God-given authority, but rather a focus on human agency. The Buddha was simply a human being who taught his disciples about dukkha and the path out of dukkha. Yet, he also taught disciples not to become attached to this path. In this respect, although there subsequently developed many authoritative Buddhist texts, there is room throughout for a high degree of individualism.
The boundaries of the problem are thus “objective authority”, God-given or top down, on one end, and relativism, individual or bottom-up, on the other. On this scale between “objectivity” and relativism, Batchelor lies somewhere in the middle, as do probably most practitioners of most religions. In other words, Batchelor draws upon, and regards as valid, many authoritative Buddhist texts, yet he injects his own interpretations and personal adjustments – adjustments that he feels enhance, rather than undermine, the tradition. He accepts the general framework of Buddhism, yet emphasizes its spirit of individual questioning.
These boundaries between objectivity and relativism are relevant to all aspects of contemporary life. Throughout the world today, not only in the study and practice of religion, we are witnessing shifting boundaries and definitions. For example, many ultra-orthodox Jews do not regard non-orthodox Jews as being “true” Jews. Many Catholics do not regard Protestants as being Christians. In a world in which religious and cultural dialogue is gaining in popularity and necessity, how we define what makes a Jew a Jew or a Christian a Christian will continue to be pertinent questions. These questions are particularly relevant for Buddhist communities in the Western world, as they are only in their formative stages.
This paper has provided simply one example of current debates regarding spiritual definitions and the boundaries of religions. As illustrated throughout this paper, many feel uncomfortable with expanding boundaries and subjective spirituality and wish to tighten the reigns of authority. As globalization continues to grow in all areas of life, such issues will also grow in importance and further study will be a necessity.
In the meantime, there are many with whom Batchelor’s vision resonates. They connect with his vision of a Buddhism that emanates from within each of us, yet which carries a sense of existential responsibility. They resonate with his call for small spiritual communities in which practitioners actively formulate a spirituality based on their own inner questioning. This pared down and exposed Buddhism is perhaps less a Buddhism without beliefs, and more a Buddhism without baggage.
I suppose what's interesting about this is the question of who
has the authority to assert: this is Buddhism and this is not Buddhism? And on what basis can that assertion be made?
This text, that tradition, this institution, that teacher, this scholar........when is any of this free from the question of interpretation?