Did Gotama intend to start a religion?

These two questions were posted to an online interactive session with Stephen Batchelor during a Bodhi College course in December 2016.

SB Let’s start with a couple of questions that Gary Dean has posted. Here’s his first question:

‘From my reading over the years, I’m beginning to understand Siddhattha Gotama to be a philosopher who established a school of ethics and practice about 2,500 years ago. I speculate that like other philosophical schools of that period, Gotama’s school sought to build a civilisational system of ethics that was compatible with emerging large urban polities that had begun to develop.’

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it more succinctly than you did, Gary. That’s exactly how I feel, and that’s very much the direction that my work, my writing, my talks and retreats are all trying to recover the philosopher that has often been forgotten, or buried, concealed by the quasi-godlike figure of the Buddha as he has evolved over this time into, essentially, the founder and the leader and the exemplifier of a particular religion, the religion we call Buddhism.

For those of you who may not have such a clear sense of the history here, it’s well worth bearing in mind that Gotama was a contemporary of Socrates. They lived, effectively, at the same time, in the 4th century BCE.

Many of the philosophical schools that grew up in Greece after Socrates, I’m thinking particularly of the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics and others, presented a way of life, a way of practice, a system of ethics that in many ways parallels the work that Gotama sought to establish in India.

Remember that there was a fair amount of contact between India and the Greek world at that time, largely because of the Persian empire that connected the two. Parts of Pakistan and parts of modern-day Greece were actually part of the same empire, the Achaemenid empire of the Persians. There was an enormous amount of intercultural exchange going on in this period.

I don’t want to suggest that the Buddha borrowed all his stuff from Greece, and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest the opposite: that the Greeks borrowed all their stuff from the Buddhists. That’s not really possible to prove, one way or the other, but I think what is clear is that, economically and socially, these two societies were developing into urban communities with monarchs ruling. and that these social and economic conditions, I think, brought human beings to ask very similar kinds of questions.

And that their philosophers, their thinkers, not surprisingly, came up with ways to address these questions that there are a number of similarities with each other. So, I sense that if we see parallels between the Buddha, Socrates, the Hellenists and so on, we’re actually uncovering a similar thought world that existed across the ancient cultures of India, of Persia, of Greece.

I think that’s probably the best reason for their being so similar in many ways, but what’s happened to Buddhism, as of course we know, is that it became very much a religious philosophy rather than just a philosophy. It adopted many of the beliefs of ancient India: it established hierarchies of priests; it established temples; it established forms of ritual behaviour; and whatnot.

In some ways, I think that the core philosophy somehow got buried and obscured. What I would aspire to, in our day and age, would be not only to recover the philosophical way of life that the Buddha introduced, but also to recognise that it has numerous resonances with the sources of our own western culture.

I feel that this is a very important thing to do; to get out of the idea that Buddhism is somehow alien, or Indian thought belonging somewhere else and to recognise that what we’re really tapping into are the fundamental questions as to what it means to be human.

This is Gary’s second question:

‘It seems to me that Gotama did not establish Buddhism, nor did he seek or desire to establish a religion. Quite the contrary it appears, if we are to believe the early sources. So my question is this: Is it not problematic to refer to Gotama’s school of ethics and practice as secular Buddhism? Isn’t there a more appropriate proper noun that can be used that does not evoke religiosity, mysticism, or association with the Buddhist religion?’

This is, again, a very good point. And in fact, although I do use the term ‘secular Buddhism’, I’m preferring more and more to not use that language, but to speak instead of a secular dharma.

The courses that I run at Bodhi College, for example, are not titled ‘secular Buddhism’. They are a two-year course in Secular Dharma. The reason I’m trying to let go of the notion of Buddhism is precisely because it immediately associates it with the Buddhist religion, the religiosity and sometimes the mysticism that is associated with that term. I don’t think that’s really, terribly helpful.

The problem with ‘dharma’ though is that so many people simply don’t know what it means. Whether you like it or not, Buddhism is intelligible, whereas for some people the word ‘dharma’ wouldn’t make much sense at all.

So in some ways we are somehow beholden to the historical reality of our times to keep using that term, but ultimately I’d like to let go of this language altogether and articulate the Buddha’s dharma as very much an ethical, philosophical and contemplative practice – practice being key. But I think it’s more than just ethics, it’s also contemplation; in other words meditation, spiritual exercises and so forth, which I think are very, very important in Buddhism. Sorry, the dharma.

And likewise philosophy. I think if you don’t have a coherent view of the world, and where you as a human being are somehow located within that world, it’s difficult I think to have a clear sense of purpose or direction to what a practice or an ethics might seek as their goal.

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