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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: January 22, 2006
Latest Update: January 22, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Backup of A Review of Batchelor, Living With Good and Evil
By Jeff Wilson
SOURCE: American Buddhist Study Center Site
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: Original URL, consulted: January 22, 2006.

07/04/2005: "A Review of Batchelor, Living With Good and Evil"


Review of Stephen Batchelor,
New York: Riverhead Books, 2004.

Years ago, in Walt Kelly’s popular comic strip Pogo, this famous opossum concluded that “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This conclusion is not news for Buddhists, of course. In fact, we might have news for Pogo and his friends in the Okenfenokee swamp. We can say “You’re right, Pogo. Without the enemy, there is no us—and no Buddha either!”

In his new book, Stephen Batchelor illuminates this profound truth of universal Buddhism. He turns it like a wondrous jewel to let readers appreciate the brilliant wisdom and deep compassion that flood out from its many facets. Batchelor himself is trained in Tibetan and Zen traditions, but there is nothing sectarian in his message. Every Buddhist, indeed every thoughtful person whether “religious” or not, can gain from this book a heightened awareness about the causes of the human predicament and the healing perspective that is right here now, hiding in plain sight.

Batchelor has divided the text into three major sections, each containing several brief chapters. In the first section, The God of This Age, Batchelor introduces the character of his title: the Devil, with his many aliases and disguises. He shows us Mara the Killer as he repeatedly tempts Siddartha Gotama who is sitting like a rock against the bodhi tree. And like a bullet train on tracks of heart and mind, Batchelor speeds to the core of Buddha-Dharma within six pages of beginning the book by describing the results of Buddha’s victory over Mara:

“ At the heart of Buddha’s awakening lies a counterintuitive recognition of human experience as radically transient, unreliable, and contingent….Siddartha Gotama realized that no essential self either underpinned or stood back and viewed the integrated display of colors, shapes, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings that arise and vanish in each minute of consciousness. This startling insight shook him to the core of what he felt himself to be….Gotama found this revelation…to be deeply liberating. He referred to this freedom as ‘nirvana’….Elsewhere he spoke of this as ‘emptiness’: an open space where the idea of being an isolated and permanent self is no longer able to ensnare one….For him, an understanding of emptiness transformed a compulsive cycle of fears and cravings into a path of wisdom and care that enhanced inner freedom and empathetic responsiveness. Rather than an absence of meaning and value, emptiness is an absence of what limits and confines one’s capacity to realize what a human life can potentially become.” (pp. 6-7).

If I could cogitate, concentrate, meditate, and donate in order to incorporate the truth that is pointed to in these 161 words, I would thereby become a Buddha. A simple phrase accurately evaluates this possibility: fat chance! Not me, not this time around. But why not?

Being human at this place and time, I have a shadow that is so much a part of me that we coexist like the two sides of one coin. In the first section of the book, Batchelor introduces me to my shadow, creating a temporary separation between us and inviting me to meet my shadow honestly. He shows that “my” shadow has the amazing feature of being unique to each one of us while also being alive in all of us. Over historical time, the shadow has had many names: Mara, the killer; Satan, the adversary; Diabolos the obstructor; and so on. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Western scientific and other secular ideas partially eroded and replaced traditional religious beliefs, the devil became humanized in the form of boredom, anxiety, and celebrations of greed and violence. But, in spite of all this naming and analyzing, the devil remains elusive. The forms and styles of the devil are as various as the forms and styles of the billions of sentient humans who inhabit the planet: “In the end, we humans are the only adequate metaphor for the devil” (p. 27).

We should have no illusions: we are part and parcel of the devil, and we are at war with ourselves: “The psychological root of this rebellion is the conceit of being a static self, severed from all relationship, that renders intolerable that we might be contingent on anything but our own innate power” (p. 37). This is Batchelor’s elegant restatement of the Second Noble Truth: the cause of our suffering is attachment to ego.

There may be some readers who doubt that these assertions by Batchelor are in full accord with the teachings of our Shin Buddhism. If so, then please hear what the great Shin writer Shiuchi Maida says about the devil in his powerful book The Evil Person:

“Sakyamuni did not find himself a devil; Sakyamuni, who already was a devil, was awakened to what he really was. What I am trying to say is this: If I declare I am a devil, there is still a separation between me and the devil; there is still some lukewarmness. How then, do I want to describe it? I say that the devil realized that he was a devil. It was not Sakyamuni’s—or my—awakening to being a devil, but a devil’s awakening to being a devil” (p.73).

Putting the Batchelor and Maida statements together is a reminder that all of these assertions are about me, personally. I speak only for myself alone, not making religious judgments of others.

In Section Two of the book, Creating a Path, Batchelor catalogues many ways that we close ourselves off from the freedom that awaits us through a realization of emptiness, and he describes how we can find the emptiness we seek. He refreshes our understanding of “the path,” a metaphor that risks becoming cliché in casual discussions about spirituality. A path is a form of space, “a space where nothing gets in the way” (p.71). It is unfortunate, he says, that in English we don’t have the verb “to path.” Rather, we separate the act or process of moving freely from that upon which we move. “By contrast, in Sanskrit the noun pratipad (path) comes from the same root as the verb pratipadyate, which means ‘he or she paths’ ” (p. 72). So to be on a path is to act, to practice. Every decision entails action of some sort. We act whether we like it or not, so we have a practice whether we like it or not. Some practices open paths that are relatively wide and free, while other practices are paths that are relatively cramped or circular. The question becomes, what shall our path be?

Batchelor enriches the metaphor of the path with numerous descriptions and examples, including some that bear implicitly on the uniqueness of Jodo Shinshu teachings. For example, he describes the difference between having a task and receiving a gift; both are “pathing” (p.79). The eighteenth vow of Dharmakara/Amida assures us that reciting the Nembutsu with joyful, sincere entrusting and aspiration to arrive in the Pure Land is the occasion for confidence in that arrival. Thus Amida’s gift of assured entrance into the Pure Land, when fully appreciated in consciousness, causes us to announce the Nembutsu of gratitude. In the Pure Land tradition, we have Nembutsu as cause and effect. As Reverend T.K. Tsuji wrote in his poem Gassho to Amida, “When I call Amida’s name, it’s Amida calling me. His voice and my voice are one. I gassho to Amida.”

Thus we have a tradition of receiving the great gift with only the briefest statement of a task: an aspiration undertaken with joyful, sincere entrusting announced in recitation. The task seems slight in comparison with the gift. But learning sincere entrusting is not a simple matter, at least for people like me who came to Jodo Shinshu as an adult from outside of the Japanese and Japanese-American Shin traditions. So for us it is quite natural, even if potentially misguided, to seek a way to deserve the gift through accomplishment of specified tasks. Batchelor offers a word of warning to us: “Creating a path is like learning to play a piano. It may require years of discipline to achieve technical mastery of the instrument, but for the music to come alive requires a sensibility and inspiration that cannot be learned” (p.79).

If I cannot learn great sensitivity and transforming inspiration, then what am I to do? Perhaps the answer has already been given above: to awaken completely, as a devil, to the fact that I am a devil, hopelessly conflicted and enmeshed in my humanity. Shinran leads the way to this awakening by his example, when he says in the Tannisho: “…if I were capable of realizing Buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fell into hell for saying the nembutsu, I might have dire regrets for having been deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only home” (Taitetsu Unno translation, 1984, p.6).

In Section 3, Living with the Devil, Batchelor situates the path squarely in everyday life, which is particularly appropriate for householder Buddhists. Many readers will be challenged by Batchelor’s interpretations of Sakyamuni as a practical political person who had to deal pragmatically with the powerful kings Ajatasatru and Pasenadi. Equally challenging, in my opinion, is Batchelor’s insistence that we must continuously guard against letting the forms of institutional religion become hindrances on the path to emptiness.

In his concluding chapters, Batchelor warns that Buddhist teachings can become entangled in the all-too-human effort to seek permanence in the structure of a church. There is also the risk that the teachings become hidden by traditional details. Both risks exist for American Jodo Shinshu. But there is certainly hope for the future. Gifted authors have allowed the Nembutsu teaching to breathe the local air and speak in the local tongue. Consider, for example, the works of Alfred Bloom, Gyomay and S.K. Kubose, Koshin Ogui, Hozen Seki, Ruth Tabrah, Kenneth Tanaka, K.T. Tsuji, Taitetsu Unno, and Seigen Yamaoka.

The truth of the teaching is available to all of us in the books of these authors and the dharma messages of many ministers. It is up to us to listen deeply and with care. Batchelor’s book teaches us that careful listening begins with an admission about our nature: we are always living with the devil.

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