In the exclusive online content of the October-December 2010 issue of Mandala, B. Alan Wallace sparked a heated debate about truth and doubt with the controversial “Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist.” Stephen Batchelor, who was a focus of Alan Wallace’s criticism, responded thoughtfully in an open letter in the January-March 2011 issue. In “An Old Story of Faith and Doubt,” Stephen Schettini examines the debate between these two well-known thinkers from a more personal and person-centered perspective.
By Stephen Schettini
I first met Alan Wallace and Stephen Batchelor in 1975, in the tiny Swiss hamlet of Schwendi. I lived upstairs from them in our four-roomed house. From day one, I was impressed that the two of them could share such close quarters without argument even though their temperaments were strikingly different. The philosophical gulf between them today reflects those personal differences remarkably closely. It doesn’t surprise me, but I am saddened by the increasingly strident tone of those differences. After three decades, the old restraint seems finally to be bursting out of its emotional containment. This is not just a debate of ideas.
On the face of it, the Batchelor-Wallace face-off is an archetypal battle between faith and skepticism, one that characterizes not just Buddhism but all philosophical thought. It doesn’t actually require two people; that very conflict has played out in my own mind since early childhood. My memoir The Novice explores that theme at length, and many readers have written to tell me what a relief it’s been to know they’re not alone.
Wallace and Batchelor, however, have chosen to entrench their positions and stick their necks out quite publicly. This might be a fruitful debate with the potential to sensitize Western Buddhists to the profound and ubiquitous issue of faith versus doubt – or, it could just turn nasty. Perhaps it already has.
Alan’s recent Mandala article, “Distorted Visions of Buddhism,” accuses Stephen of rewriting history, and therein lies the crux: what to Alan is historical fact is to Stephen debatable; what to one must remain beyond question is to the other the very thing that must most urgently be questioned. The troubling thing about the article is that Alan questions Stephen’s integrity. That’s not debate; it’s personal. Alan sees himself as representative of the tradition in a way that Stephen is not (though I dare say Stephen would agree with a sigh of relief). Where do I stand? I think that icons are important fixtures in the Dharma landscape and so are iconoclasts.
When we were monks together all those years ago, we often referred to certain teachers as “fully enlightened beings” as if we knew what that meant or could recognize such people when we saw them. We were in awe of all Tibetan lamas, even mere geshes. By any Western standards, the scholarship of our teachers Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and Geshe Tamdrin Rabten was impressive. The openness and enormous attractiveness of the Tibetan monks in exile were hard to resist. Here were intelligent, kind men who urged us to think and debate. For me, and I suspect for others, they were (at least for a while) surrogate fathers.
We did our best to follow the monastic rule and tried to honor the rules of guru devotion implicit in Tibetan Buddhism (and Tibetan convention). Alan seemed quietly determined in his pursuit of these relationships, but Stephen never shied away from second guessing a teacher if something didn’t sit well with him. You might make the case that Buddhism encourages skepticism, but Stephen brought his skepticism along with him. It certainly wasn’t foreign to the non-denominational English secularism in which he was raised. Alan, on the other hand, was an American son of a Baptist minister. I can only presume he grew up with a very different sense of belief. This isn’t to imply that Alan is a dogmatist: he described his budding interest in Tibetan Buddhism as having “entailed a very painful break with my father, resulting in four years of poverty, malnutrition and terrible health in Dharamsala.”1 I think we all had father issues of one sort or another, and I suspect that shaped our attitudes towards and relationships with our teachers, relationships that in the Tibetan tradition are given enormous weight. My father was a difficult man with whom I never established a satisfactory relationship; Stephen grew up without a father.
Alan and Stephen were both elder monks and teachers in our little community, and so role models to the rest of us. Both came across as self-protective, but each cultivated this attribute in his own way. Stephen put on an air of nonchalance that I took as a feint; he never shied from any challenge to the status quo, but was prone to express it with a sarcastic word, even a slight sneer. Such comments would cast a shadow over Alan’s brow, though he usually managed to bite his lip. Nevertheless, a little exploration usually revealed Stephen’s “offhand” remarks to be anything but casual.
I don’t remember Alan expressing any doubts in public, and presume that he would have shared them in private with his own teachers. He does claim to have entertained doubts, though I’ve no idea how existential they were.2 He was discrete to the point of being opaque, and his shell seemed more straightforward than Stephen’s. He shared his knowledge freely, but expressed little of his self. I thought him uncomfortable in his skin. He preferred to speak of things he could back up with scriptural citations or logical argument than stories or opinions that entailed personal feelings. He was an impressive scholar with a sharp eye, an excellent memory and a zeal for correctness. These are my subjective impressions, but in the years since, I’ve learned that many who admired Alan’s intellect also felt uncomfortable with him. As for his scholarly qualities, he was once described as an “encyclopaedia of Buddhism.” Indeed.
The end result of these different personalities was that although Stephen could be more acidic and aloof, he was fundamentally more approachable. Alan was harder to approach, but if you were looking for clear answers to troubling questions, he was more likely to deliver a consoling thought.
The main thrust of Alan’s article is that Stephen is rewriting history and reconstructing what’s been “true” for generations of Buddhists in a subjective and idiosyncratic way. Stephen’s interpretation of what the Buddha taught and – even more contentiously – what he meant, are not a product of strict scholarship and philology, but a reworking derived on his own intuition. Alan doesn’t like this. He says it’s:
“… an expression of arrogance to override their [professional scholars and contemplatives throughout history] conclusions simply due to one’s own preferences or ‘intuition’ (which is often thinly disguised prejudice). To ignore the most compelling evidence of what the Buddha taught and to replace that by assertions that run counter to such evidence is indefensible.”3
Even if Stephen’s work is a product of the most subjective feelings, how does that call his integrity into question? As a born skeptic, Stephen is more concerned about the plausibility of the teachings ascribed to the Buddha than dependent on whether or not he actually taught them. He values experience over tradition. Who is his role model for this? Siddhartha Gotama. Nevertheless, by using that method to draw his picture of the Buddha, he undermines the august pretentions of scholarship and tradition, and infuriates Alan.
Alan is trying to be a good Buddhist, but his article raises two questions:
First, are these teachings and people really sacred? For Alan, “yes,” because Buddhism is a religion; for Stephen, “no,” because Buddhism is a non-religion. There’s not much room for compromise here.
Second, and more chillingly, is Alan trying to keep Buddhism pure? Is such a thing possible? Buddhism is a construct or, as Shariputtra says to the Buddha’s great satisfaction in the Heart Sutra, “There is no Dharma.” With all their fears and defenses, human beings are the real actors in the world. The Dharma, no matter how revered, only takes shape through people. To express his dissatisfaction with the way Stephen shapes it, Alan draws parallels with the methods of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. As circumspectly as he explores this comparison, that’s an emotionally charged accusation that should be reserved for discussion of real atrocities. It’s out of line. Is Stephen’s questioning of Siddhartha’s true nature an atrocity? Is Buddhism too fragile to withstand such an affront? Are Buddhists so gullible that they must be guided by scholars? If so, when, if ever, will they lose their gullibility?
And what of Siddhartha Gotama’s true nature? Stephen has spent his life trying to reconcile what the man taught with the fact that he was a man and that whatever was special about him wasn’t the fruit of high privilege but of right effort. If the Buddha didn’t work his own way to awakening in a way that we can follow, what’s the point of his life and teaching? Buddhism in its religious incarnations is presented as a stairway to nirvana, and the Buddha himself as virtually – if not actually – supernatural. How important is it to believe that instead of squeezing through the birth canal like other newborns, he popped out of his mother’s side, traced the compass points and pronounced his future?
Alan allows us to reject this and exit Buddhism by the back door, but not to stay and fight, by suggesting that those who aver it might be mistaken, or even willfully inventive. Perhaps some were well-intentioned but misguided – but no; there were so many of them, for so many centuries, they must be right. Such is the logic of the institutional lineage-tree that Tibetans use to trace their respective traditions back to the oral teachings of the Buddha himself, and which “proves” their unquestionable veracity.
The Buddha taught 2,600 years ago. For 500 years, his lessons were recited by various groups and eventually written down by one or some of them. No one really knows how faithful that process was over the centuries, but to not even wonder is to stick your head decidedly in the sand. With a little lubrication from the doctrine of skillful means it survives the test of consistency remarkably well, but what does that prove? To suggest that in two and a half millennia none of those whose lives and careers were invested in Buddhist institutions all over Asia added the least accretion is an act of religious faith, not of scholarly discipline.
Are we to rely on those who came afterwards for the truth of what the Buddha taught? Can we not go straight to his words and put them to the test for ourselves? The Buddha enjoins us to do just that in the Kalama Sutra – probably the most influential document in spreading the Dharma to the West.4
Stephen is unafraid to weigh those words for himself; Alan finds that arrogant. Alan is a loyal traditionalist and authority figure. He feels both qualified and responsible to state what is acceptable and what is not.
It would be a terrible thing to have only one option in this dilemma: to be obliged to be orthodox or to be forced to question everything. I ask again: can Western Buddhism not handle diversity? History shows that some traditions were indeed unable to do just that. Even today, some forms of Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are marked more by intolerance than by the simple embrace of common humanity. What’s the point of that? Well, sometimes it’s not about rational argument; it’s about human behavior.
Is it really presumptuous to prioritize the Buddha’s teachings? Isn’t it just good sense? Isn’t the practice of mindfulness evidently more important than belief in a Mount Meru-centered universe? Won’t your willingness to acknowledge denial bring you tangibly closer to awakening than a belief in reincarnation? Is it unreasonable that the way you answer those questions affects the way you perceive and talk about the Buddha? Does it forbid you to speculate, or to prod, goad and even denounce the status quo?
Perhaps two old Dharma cronies have rubbed each other the wrong way for too long. Or, perhaps Stephen’s individual ego is all caught up in itself. Or, then again, perhaps Alan’s collective institutional ego is too big for its boots. Too much freedom of thought is not conducive to humility, but too much scholarship is bad for the heart. The questions of faith and doubt have been explored for millennia, and will hopefully continue to be explored. They form a dialectic between which we approach awakening. Personal attacks do no one any service, even if they’re couched between the lines of clever argument.
Alan’s article scores some very crisp points, but its tone is unfriendly. That may sound lame, but to me it’s paramount. It’s rude to Stephen and all of like mind. We’re all trying to get to the root of what the Buddha taught. Stephen is an upstart; Alan is a paragon of correctness. They’re both entitled. In any case, they’re not likely to change now.
As a junior monk back in Switzerland in 1975, I was haunted by the tension between them. Wanting to avoid confusion at all cost, I chose not to see it. I practiced denial in order to be more mindful! In the years since, I’ve learned that the practice of Dharma is usually as chaotic as this, which is in part why I lost faith in the scholarly illusion of the straight and narrow. My chaos has nevertheless led me to greater acceptance, peace and clarity. The path is not straight. How could it be when life is a mass of contradictions and a comedy of errors? You need a sense of humor, especially about those things you hold most sacred.
You know, we almost didn’t have Alan and Stephen to talk about. A closed vent in the Swiss heating system one night filled their room with assorted gases, including carbon dioxide and monoxide, almost asphyxiating the two of them in one stroke. What a loss that would be for us … or would it? This argument they’re having is so done, and yet so irresolvable that there’ll always be a pair of old rivals somewhere arguing about what the Buddha really meant. Let’s just hope they’ll be decent about it.
I don’t know exactly what the Buddha taught. I wasn’t there. Even if I had been, I can’t say what I’d have made of his words, let alone his presence and body language. After all, there’s far more to communication (and miscommunication) than mere ideas. What do you think?
Stephen Schettini is director of Quiet Mind Seminars and author of The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned. He can be reached through his personal website at www.schettini.com.
 March 12, 2004: personal email correspondence
 “I have been critical of it from the beginning, but no less critical than I have been of Western civilization.” March 12, 2004, email.
 Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist, paragraph 5. Mandala October-December 2010, online content.
 “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, ‘This monk is our teacher.’ When you know in yourselves: “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them.” – Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha; from the Kalama Sutra (trans. Nanamoli Thera)