A baffling absence of clear thinking: Batchelor’s Interview

Just a brief note on the recent interview of Stephen Batchelor in the 2 July 2015 issue of the Barre Center’s Insight Journal

Discussing similarities between the life story of the Buddha found in the Pali canon and in the Tibetan translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda vinaya, Batchelor says:

The two versions don’t agree in every detail, but they’re remarkably similar. So we actually have two independent sources, pretty much, that seem to be referring to a common source, that must have predated both, that would go back I think very close to the Buddha’s time.

After an aside, the interview goes on:

IJ: It’s remarkable that we have two seemingly independent sources that agree so well.

SB: Yes, very remarkable, and I’m amazed nobody else has spotted that.

Apparently neither Batchelor nor his interviewer bothered to consider the meaning of the words used in making the claim—it seems rather obvious that if two sources are “referring to a common source” then they are not “independent.” Consider: if George tells both Pete and John about what Dave did, then Pete and John are not independent sources regarding Dave’s actions. What is amazing is that Batchelor seems to think that it is amazing that “nobody else has spotted that.” The reason “nobody else has spotted that” is that it is a fallacy.

In his quest for the historical Buddha, Batchelor seems almost determined to make the same mistakes as plagued the quest for the historical Jesus, such as the quest for a definitive original source text “behind” the three synoptic Gospels. The harder scholars looked for such a text, the more it vanished through their fingers like the chimera that it was.

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3 thoughts on “A baffling absence of clear thinking: Batchelor’s Interview

  1. this seems to re-establish the Protestant roots of the secular paradigm- it always warrants a chuckle to see the secular apologists using the puritanical playbook or the atheist evangelists defining themselves so stridently in utterly Christian terms.

  2. A telling interview indeed. I like the fact that Batchelor tries to establish a fact-based-ethics. But there the problems already begin. What is this fact? Where does it come from, what’s it cultural context, the technological and economic background, the discourse and dispositive in which it arises? Batchelor seems to avoid these questions. It seems like he takes it for granted that we today and them back then are thinking in the very same way. He makes this clear, as I think, when he talks about a certain “human condition”…

    If the texts speak to you—not in an intellectual way, but actually speak to your human condition—you enter into a dialogue with the texts.

    At that point it becomes clear that this is a kind of essentialism.

    A lot of things Batchelor is saying are reasonable especially when it is about arguing against a western Buddhist orthodoxy. But his search for an original Buddha ultimately brings him back to the same base the ones are using he criticizes (implicitly): An Essence and an authority which backs up his claims about that essence.

    Batchelor fails to address the important question about what remains if the ‘human condition’ is just that we must consider very strongly the possibility that we might be totally unable to understand another culture in another time. Task-based-ethics have to address this question. The task at hand is not a simple given.

    Lopez in in the last chapter of his Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sutra makes it clear that the task of the interpreter or commentator of a Buddhist text has to take into account a) as many contexts of a text as possible – Batchelor probably does this –, but that he too has to take into account b) his own contexts – Batchelor seems to fail in this respect and therefor he is possibly blind about is own blind spots. c) Lopez makes the point that following the context depended nature of any commentary, interpretation, translation etc. one must come to the conclusion that is impossible to get back to an original in the naive sense – which is what Batchelor is aiming for.

  3. Yes, it’s amazing to me that in his recent book Batchelor makes patronizing assessments of all his Dharma teachers, expresses disdain for scholars — all the while congratulating himself for nice little insight moments that would be quite respectable for a beginner but don’t really merit extended comment, and touting “scholarly” discoveries that wouldn’t pass muster in an undergraduate paper — and certain Buddhist groups just seem to lap it up. A mystery. Thank you, Richard, for pointing out one among a myriad of blithe fallacies the man has perpetrated.

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