~ by Winton Higgins •


This talk contributes to your sangha’s ongoing study of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without beliefs, his ‘plain-English’ orientation to ‘dharma practice’. This concept builds on (a) the Buddha’s original teaching and (b) a contrast between dharma practice on the one hand; and on the other, prevalent forms of Buddhism as a belief- and ritual-laden religion.

Religious Buddhism is a religion like any other, characterised by certitudes – untestable truth claims – and by the real-world functions of all organised religions: particularly consolation, social cohesion and control, and the legitimation of temporal rulers.

In contrast to religious Buddhism, Batchelor proposes an ‘agnostic Buddhism’ in aid of dharma practice, a Buddhism which keeps faith with the Buddha’s own no-holds-barred inquiry into the nature of human experience (particularly anguish), its causes, its ceasing, and its methodical overcoming.

His agnostic Buddhism evokes the original sense of agnosticism, as proposed by its inventor, the late-19th century English biologist Thomas Huxley: one cannot know something until one has rigorously investigated it experientially. So:

An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of ‘answers’ to questions of where we come from, where we are going, what happens after death…[She] looks to the dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation.

Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without beliefs, p.18



is the subject of the fifth substantial section of your textbook. For almost all religious Buddhists, rebirth is a core belief, i.e., for them it makes no sense to call yourself a Buddhist while questioning this belief. Arguably, though, a majority of western dharma practitioners do question or reject rebirth, often while acknowledging its value as a metaphor for how we tend to reinforce and reproduce unexamined reflexes in daily life, thus rebirthing our habitual selves. For the ins and outs of the debate, see Nagapriya, Exploring karma and rebirth [(Birmingham: Windhorse, 2004). It carries endorsements by Stephen Batchelor and David Loy.]

In sum, Batchelor writes that the Buddha – a child of his time and culture, as all human beings are – accepted the ambient ancient-Indian belief in some sort of life after this one. This belief in a next life, Batchelor notes, is the only one all religions encourage in common (while disagreeing drastically on what forms it takes and how one accesses them).

The next-life premise provides a reward-and-punishment mechanism that underpins religion’s role in providing consolation, social control and cohesion. Fear of next-life consequences for transgressions in this life is the striking stock-in-trade of most (perhaps all) religions, including religious Buddhism. At the same time, prettier pictures of the next life (everybody wearing ‘the robe and crown’ in a fabulous heaven-realm, as in the old African-American-gospel imaginary, for instance) do more than console – they provide compensatory fantasies after a life of humiliation and deprivation.

But even in the Buddha’s time and place, some people seem to have questioned the belief in reincarnation or rebirth, that is, a next life. At the end of the famous Kalama sutta (the best-known part of which, a sort of agnostic manifesto, follows the preface of your textbook), the Buddha addresses this scepticism by saying that dharma practice is equally effective and relevant whether you believe in rebirth or not.

Batchelor quotes part of this teaching at the beginning of the section on rebirth, p.39. This is clearly his own position. In fact, he implies that abandoning the belief in rebirth clears the path to more effective dharma practice, for three reasons:

  • In the Buddha’s own spirit, it gets rid of the metaphysical ballast that diverts attention from our immediate predicaments and impedes sensitivity to our actual experience. As he notes, the gradual religification of the Buddha’s tradition after his death made awakening – its central promise – more and more unattainable. In short, religion gets in the way of effective dharma practice;
  • Abandonment of the rebirth premise overcomes an incoherence in traditional Buddhism: each of us is supposed to be reborn, and yet a central outcome of dharma practice is the insight that every element of our identity is transient, i.e., there is no enduring someone to be reborn.
  • Abandoning the rebirth premise brings us face to face with a critical issue in the dharmic quest: our mortality, or finitude. Hold that thought!

I feel quite at home in Batchelor’s perspective, so I’m not going to argue with it. That would be inauthentic. And frankly, I suggest that dharma practitioners can make better use of their time than entering the lists of a stale old unresolvable metaphysical question like: Do we survive our death and enter onto a new life after it?


After-life temptations

Instead of endlessly rehearsing the old metaphysical debate around a next life, as part of our practice of presence we need to look at why we get so drawn into it. What is the hook in the idea of an after-life? Dharma practitioners seeking deeper awareness certainly needs to look into this question in their own experience.

The prospect of our own death, and of those of people close to us, perturbs us. Often greatly. These matters can both gnaw constantly at our minds, conscious and unconscious, and they can also erupt (along with death itself) without warning into our living experience. Death is usually tragic: all beings cling to life, the Buddha and Sigmund Freud reliably inform us. But death is also mysterious. The central mystery is: how can this self – experienced as so real and enduring –suddenly just cease, become extinct?

So the first, time-hallowed recourse of a troubled and puzzled humanity is to try to rob death of its reality, of its power to terminate us, by denying its finality. ‘Oh death, where is thy sting; o grave, thy victory?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55); ‘And death shall have no dominion,’ wrote Dylan Thomas, not a religious man, in his entrancing poem of the same title. In our own culture, the memorable statements robbing death of its reality and finality are endless.

So we invent postmortem survival stories as comforting certitude and consolation. Some essential part of us lives on, the different stories relate: our recycled atman (essence) in Hinduism and religious Buddhism; our soul in the middle-eastern religions; our reputation in hero- and celebrity-worshipping cultures like the old Norse/Viking one and the west today.

For many of us (including me), all this is just denial, if not also wish-fulfilling fantasy. But it also links up with its opposite – the primal fear of the dead. Many traditional cultures nurture a fear of the dead. People close to us die; but then they pop up again, large as life (so to speak), in our memories, thoughts and dreams. And they’re probably occupying some plane of existence where they can access our ambivalence (an essential ingredient of all human relationships) about them, including all the nasty things we’ve done and said against them, behind their backs, in the past.

These experiences make the dead seriously scary, especially in a culture that induces belief in revengeful ghosts, ghouls, zombies, dybbuks and the undead in general. If you believe in them, your mind will conjure them forth. Hence, as Darian Leader writes in his recent book, The new black (London: Penguin, 2008), in many traditional cultures ‘killing the dead’ constitutes an essential part of funerary rites. They must be quarantined from the living. This often includes blocking their re-entry into this life, at least through a taboo that forbids their evocation by name or image, as in Aboriginal culture.

A slightly more sophisticated and less drastic way of quarantining the menacing dead is to pack them off to another address, well away from the living. Heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo are especially remote addresses, but the Hindu and religious-Buddhist option works just as well. The dead are too preoccupied with (and rooted in) their new lives to come back and spook their former associates.


‘The bright awareness of finitude’

For some decades, our finitude has been an important trope in western philosophy. Assuming death does actually end our existence, confronting this fact has enormous implications for how we live our lives, and most particularly for how we practise the dharma. To return to Stephen Batchelor’s words that we started with, we must ‘look to the dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation’.

We confront our finitude when we acknowledge our vulnerability, mortality and incompleteness (which I’ll return to in a minute). It challenges us to make the most of this life, to make it, as far as possible, a valuable, coherent one worthy of a conscious human subject, without entering into perfectionist delusions and other forms of grandiosity. The traditional dharmic death contemplations, to be regularly reintroduced into the mind, get to the heart of the matter:

  • Is death certain?
  • When will it come?
  • What will have meaning at the time of death?

These questions inspire existential confrontation. We have to face the uncertainties of life, and our fear of our certain death. Perhaps this has most to do with our frustrated urge to become, to enter into some idealised state before we die. Remember the Buddha’s little list of primary sources of anguish in craving for sense pleasures, for becoming, and for annihilation (eros and thanatos in Freud’s theory).

I recently found a brilliant statement of this central source of anguish in Pascal Mercier’s 2004 novel, Night train to Lisbon (New York: Grove, 2008). As one of the characters explains his own fear of death:

[The fear of death is] about things you want to do and experience because only they would make your own, this very special life whole, and because without them, life remains incomplete, a torso and a mere fragment…[It’s about] the current living awareness that life would remain incomplete, fragmentary and without the coherence we hope for…the knowledge that even in the future it would no longer be possible to have those rounding off experiences, perfecting experiences…So the fear of death might be described as the fear of not being able to become whom one had planned to be.

Significantly, Mercier calls this insight, ascribed to one of the characters in his novel, the bright awareness of finitude.


In conclusion

As dharma practitioners, we need to cultivate this bright awareness of our own finitude, and experience and work with its implications in our bodies and minds, in every cell of our being, in our daily lives and in our sitting. The intimate awareness of finitude grounds us in the way things really are, and in what really matters, so drawing us out of the narcissistic grandiosity that our culture inculcates.


• This talk was given to Golden Wattle Sangha, Sydney, in April 2010. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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