Book review: Living with the Devil

I must be getting cranky. I’ll pick up a book and find myself arguing with the author right from the first page, sometimes even the first sentence. That’s what happened with Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, a book on Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor (shown), who is a Buddhist teacher and writer. He starts:

This is a book for those like myself who find themselves living in the gaps between different and sometimes conflicting mythologies—epic narratives that help us make sense of this brief life on earth.

Hmmm. I don’t “find myself” living in any such “gaps”.

Whether the myths we inherit from the past come from a monotheistic religion such as Judaism or Christianity or a nontheistic tradition such as Buddhism, they share the view that a human life is fully intelligible only as part of an immense cosmic drama that transcends it.

This seems like a funny thing for someone with Zen training to say (Batchelor was a Zen monk in Korea for three years, after also studying Tibetan Buddhism). I don’t think Buddhism says that human life is “fully intelligible”, with or without any “immense cosmic drama”.

Both believe hidden powers to be at work—whether of God or karma makes little difference—that have flung us into this world to face the daunting task of redeeming ourselves for the remainder of eternity.

No, I don’t think Buddhism holds that there are “hidden powers”. And certainly it’s wrong to equate God, whoever/whatever He/She is, with karma. We were not “flung” into this world (if we were, from where?). And what exactly are we supposed to be “redeeming ourselves” from?

For me this is overly reminiscent of the unlikely creation myth I was taught as a child. That particular cosmology held that a flesh-and-bones God and his wife, living on a distant planet, copulated and created non-physical “spirit children”, including me. The spirit children embodied some kind of eternal essence of each person, which had existed from the “beginning”, in exactly what form is unclear. Those spirit children hung around until humans down on Earth themselves copulated, creating physical bodies that the spirit children came down and inhabited, deprived of their “premortal” memories, to be subjected to a test of obedience and faith to determine their eventual eternal status. I’m not kidding, there are really people that believe this.

Batchelor then goes on to facilely, relativistically, and post-modernistically conflate modern day science with such fairy tales:

A dominant myth of modernity is provided by the scientific understanding of the world, so compelling that we refuse to acknowledge anything mythical about it at all.

Sure, it’s useful to have a perspective of science as a contingent belief system. But science is fundamentally distinct from religious myths in its nature.

Human knowledge is invariably limited and partial…Whatever a person knows is mediated through his senses, his reason, his brain. No matter how well it can be explained, reality remains essentially mysterious.

But this misses the point that at their heart the mythic explanations are different from the scientific ones in their nature. And something merely being mysterious does not mean that the explanation has failed, or that the explanation is a “myth”—unless you want to call any belief system a myth.

I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet. But this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say.

But Hamlet is a fictional character in a play—we all know that. We don’t need to “believe” in him or not. We know that his lines were written by Shakespeare. God, on the other hand, cannot be defined. We cannot even say what it means to “believe” in Him/Her. We don’t know what He has said or is saying, or what relationship what is written in the Bible has to this “God” idea.

Whew. That was all just in the first three pages. The rest of the book is mainly about the Devil, which is not a useful metaphor for me in any of the cultural or religious guises presented here. I guess I should have thought about that before buying the book, since the title, after all, is “Living with the Devil”.

I’ve adopted a new pattern for reading books. I skim them, I jump around, I skip parts. Sometimes I just put them down—life is too short. And, sad to say, that is what I ended up doing with this book as well.

2 Responses to “Book review: Living with the Devil”

  1. nordron Says:

    Dear Friend,

    Although I’m skeptical (from past readings) of Batchelor, perhaps he’s been a bit helpful by putting traditional Buddhist teachings into the language of Judeo-Christian mythos we grew up with in the West. Examining our prejudiced reaction to that familiar language may give us clues about our Buddhist practices and understanding.

    For instance, you wrote: ‘We were not ‘flung’ into this world.“

    However, it’s well accepted by all Buddhists that ordinary beings in samsara are “trapped” on an endless wheel of rebirths into which we are “thrown”, i.e., flung, by the force of our accumulated past actions. [* See Chandrakirti & verses 7&8 Three Principle Aspects of the Path below] Buddhism teaches that we have no control over our transmigrations until we have attained some level of the Buddhist path. Arya Bodhisattvas have control over their next rebirth. But even beginners at the entry to the Buddhist path create the causes and conditions for favorable rebirths by ‘practicing virtue’, abstaining from negative deeds, using Buddha’s teachings on how to purify accumulated negative karma, etc. And the answer to your inquiry—“if we were (flung), from where? â€? –- is we are flung by the karma accumulated in our mental continuua from one life to the next.

    You object strongly to Batchelor’s thesis that the: “mythologies [of Buddhism or theisms are] epic narratives that help us make sense of this brief life on earth . . . they share the view that a human life is fully intelligible only as part of an immense cosmic drama that transcends it.

    While I agree fully with one of your objections (that god and the law of cause and effect are equivalent), I wonder if his use of the word myth” with respect to Buddhism provoked a negative response because ‘myth’ can be loaded with the meaning ‘false’ or ‘fictional’. For me that negative connotation is not the dominant meaning of myth; rather myths are metaphoric or symbolic messages from ancient times (or collective-culture) that may convey important spiritual, historic, psychological/sociological truths.

    According to Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy, nothing is inherently existent: phenomena arise in an “extremely hidden manner” through incredibly complex interdependencies of cause and effect and are ‘merely posited through the force of name and thoughtâ€?. Conceptual thoughts are only a pale shadow of ‘reality’—a generic image analogous to the reality of a scene in a photograph versus the direct sensory experience of the actual scene. Since our thoughts, our verbalizations and conceptions are not ‘reality’, ‘myth’ in this context cannot be said to be an inaccurate turn of phrase.

    No one, including Buddha, can use mere words, conceptualities, to convey the enlightened experience or ultimate truth which is beyond words and thoughts and must be directly experienced. For those blessed to receive teachings from a Buddha or Arya teacher, those students do not receive a transmission of mere words but a direct mental transmission—this is believed and experienced in all schools of Buddhism, including Zen.

    Buddha spoke of karmic evolution of beings and world systems through countless great aeons to people in 500 BC (or even in 2005 AD), and related this to each individual life. Surely this is an “epic narrative [intended to] help us make sense of this brief life on earth�.

    You wrote: I don’t think Buddhism says that human life is “fully intelligible�, with or without any “immense cosmic drama�.

    Batchelor has stated [Buddhism Without Beliefs] that he rejects reincarnation. Nonetheless for 99.99% of Buddhist masters, reincarnation is an important foundation of Buddhist wisdom and practice.

    When one contemplates or meditates on beginningless lives, quickly one sees the comparative insignificance of this brief tenure—this is gateway understanding to introductory Buddhist practice [a determination not to devote this life solely to its pleasures or well-being (like animals].

    Without the first of the Three Principal Aspects of the Buddhist Path, Renunciation (of the pleasures/sufferings—especially, the afflictive emotions—of this and future lives bound in cyclic existence), there is no Buddhist Practice of Meditation and Wisdom.

    Now, people do develop renunciation from ‘practicing meditation.’ But for those who ‘practice meditation’ and do not develop renunciation, then their meditation [while hopefully beneficial to them in this life] is not a Buddhist practice.

    The Buddha’s message is clear: First, develop renunciation. To do so, you must see the (relative) insignificance and suffering nature of this very life.

    Everything in Buddhism is inter-dependently originated. A single human life—your human life right now—cannot be ‘intelligible’ outside profound meditation on the ‘immense cosmic drama’ (of actions and their effects of countless billions of beings over countless aeons).

    Most Westerners who practice “Zen” are trying to improve their experience of this life. They have not contemplated or developed renunciation, so they don’t really understand Buddhism at all. Nonetheless, as a result of ‘Zen’ practice, they may improve their morality in this life and set imprints in their mindstream to develop the Buddhist Path in their continuua in a later life.

    Once one gets a taste of renunciation, then one is instructed to meditate on the Precious Nature of this very Human Rebirth—in order to develop the enthusiastic determination not to waste it but to strive for liberation and enlightenment.

    So to develop an understanding of the Law of Cause and Effect, Reincarnation and Renunciation (in order to realize the Precious Nature of this Very Human Rebirth so as to strive and make it meaningful), requires contemplating the suffering nature of beginningless cyclic existence and innumerable incarnations—an “immense cosmic dramaâ€? leading up to our current rebirth, and the forces of karma and delusion that “have flung us into this worldâ€?, so that we can develop the renunciation and resolve to utilize this precious human rebirth “to face the daunting task ofâ€? striving to attain Liberation and Enlightenment [“redeeming ourselves for the remainder of eternity].â€?

    So Batchelor’s is using Judeo-Christian terminology, but to credit his years of Buddhist study and practice, perhaps some of the objections that leap to the mind arise from the terminology rather than the meaning. Although I suspect (as I haven’t read the book but based on my past experience) that we both disagree with his ultimate point, along the way he does use Western theological terminology for interesting effect.

    For instance, the Buddha stated over and over that there are ‘hidden phenomena’ that only inferential reasoning can understand, and there are ‘deeply hidden phenomena’ that only a Buddha can understand (and to at least some extent by Aryas on the Path to Buddhahood). The incredibly complex interworkings of the Law of Cause and Effect are ‘very hidden phenomenaâ€?.

    So it’s hard for a Buddhist to disagree when he says “Both believe hidden powers to be at work—whether of God or karma“. However, we can PROFOUNDLY Disagree when he says that the distinction between “God and karma makes little difference“!!!

    Because Buddha taught the Third and Fourth Arya Truths—that there is a Path that we as individual incarnate beings can undertake so that over time, and perhaps countless rebirths we can ‘save’/’redeem’ ourselves, end the cycle of being thrown into the sufferings of cyclic existence (liberation) and attain the peak of spiritual evolution (enlightenment) for the benefit of others.

    Traditional Christians (and many other theistic religions, though not all) teach that humans are innately sinful, not perfectable, totally at the mercy of god to be ‘purified’ and ‘saved’.

    Buddha taught that neither Buddhas (nor any god) can wash away the defilements keeping us trapped in cyclic existence. If Buddhas could, They would have done so long ago! They can show us the Path! And when we turn our minds in the direction of the Buddhas’ pure goodness and wisdom, they shower us with inspirational blessings that aid in our mental transformation. The Path teaches us how to purify our own minds (with Buddhas’ blessings) of ‘sins’ or ‘defilements’ which are adventitious—that our minds are naturally pure. Through our own actions of body, speech and mind, we can engage in a dramatic spiritual transformative journey to perfect Buddhahood.

    You wrote, “For me this is overly reminiscent of the unlikely creation myth I was taught as a child.�
    While I was not taught the exact creation myth you describe, still I note that the Bible says Jesus taught (words to the effect) “When I was a child, I thought as a child and did childish things. When I was grown, I put away childish thoughts and games.� Naturally, whatever is taught to children about the meaning of life and ‘why we are here’ is going to be unsatisfactorily childish to any aware adult. Even much [though not all] of Christian theology is far more sophisticated than the tale you recount! Really. Sort of not fair to judge sophisticated belief system by what you understand when your six or ten years old.

    Even so, the Buddhist arguments against the logical possibility of any ‘creator god’ seem irrefutable and satisfying to me. The Buddhist ‘myth’ – insofar as it is not a detailed ‘direct experience’ of a ‘reality’ beyond my ken – that this world system is an evolutionary product of the collective karma of the beings who do and will and have inhabited makes more sense to me.

    You wrote, “Sure, it’s useful to have a perspective of science as a contingent belief system. But science is fundamentally distinct from religious myths in its nature. . . . at their heart the mythic explanations are different from the scientific ones in their nature. �
    Perhaps you are not familiar with the Buddhist view that Batchelor is imbued with, that the spiritual path is logically and experientially provable -– to be subjected to rigorous testing like that of a goldsmith inspected metal imputed to be gold, etc. The foundation of Buddhist philosophical presentation of the Two Truths is an examination of how the world of compounded and impermanent phenomena works. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says if/when science disproves an aspect of Buddhist philosophy/science then that tenet or paradigm is to be abandoned.

    Buddhism’s view of the material world is quite in accord with ‘modern science,’ except [broadly speaking] that it reverses the significance of the interdependent functioning of consciousness and matter. Anyway, for an Englishman who studied the Tibetan philosophical tradition, the close relationship between science and spiritually would be apparent. Science relies on hypotheses that are accepted when they function. Scientists enjoin themselves to remember that hypotheses are not to be considered ‘real’ but only helpful/workable descriptions, metaphors, analogies—myths about the functioning of the macro/micro universe.

    You object to Batchelor writing: “I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet � by noting “But Hamlet is a fictional character in a play—we all know that.�
    Apparently Batchelor is making the point that God is also a fictional character in a play – or more likely, the many plays of so many religions and the stories/myths they tell their children and theologians. In fact, Buddha taught that we should view our own selves/lives similarly: “View all compounded phenomena as though they were (flickering) stars, mirages, butter lamps; illusions, dew, water bubbles; or dreams, flashes of lightning, clouds in the sky.�

    You wrote, “The rest of the book is mainly about the Devil, which is not a useful metaphor for me�.

    Often I rejoice in being free of the imprisoning Judeo-Christian-Islamic paradigm of Evil and the Devil. A mythos where only a totally alien other is pure or capable of purity; where goodness is received as a gift from a deity who is placated, so that Evil is the true nature of humanity. Therefore, for human self-actualization, the Left Hand Path is the only road. The disastrous political/social consequences of this good v evil struggle are all too obvious these days.

    In the Buddhist Paradigm, evil and wickedness are adventitious. Everything good in the world is the result of the virtuous actions of the beings who do or will inhabit that world. Since the true nature of the mind/spirit is pure goodness and wisdom, self-actualization leads to an enlightened state of joy/bliss, perfected virtue and wisdom. Wow.

    So even the devils – in human or other-dimensional form – are going to attain enlightened goodness some day. Not only that, given the immense eternity of beginningless incarnations, our mental continuua have manifested devil and hellbeing incarnations at some point – we’ve been to the peak and the depths of cyclic existence so many times.

    For Buddhist practitioners, a really important ‘preliminary’ practice is developing the four immeasurable minds so that we are fit to practice Buddha’s more advanced teachings. First, we must develop minds of equanimity towards all sentient beings, including devils. On that ground of equanimity for all, we train in developing the immeasurable minds of love and compassion for all – especially those beings who are trapped in the form and conduct of devils. We train our minds to become dedicated to working for their liberation and happiness.

    Perhaps that’s one of the important themes Batchelor addresses in Living with the Devil?

    * * *
    Thank you for your provocative article which gave me the opportunity to spend some time articulating a little synthesis of some studies. Found it while googling for something else.

    Please don’t take my ‘debate’ style as personal criticism. To the contrary I admire your blooging style and efforts. In the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism we are encouraged to engage in debate, vigorously but without a desire to put down or defeat a person – only ‘wrong views’ – especially, our own wrong views. In the West (and of course, not just ‘in the West’), we strongly identify with our own views, ‘right or wrong’. So the ancient debate tradition also targets ego-grasping towards our own thoughts and conceptions.

    from an american staying in Dharamsala, India since ordination by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2001,

    tenzin nordron

    Below are wonderful quotes respecting the * above:

    Homage to that compassion for migrators who are
    Powerless like a bucket traveling in a well.

    Through initially adhering to a self, an ‘I’,
    And then generating attachment for things, ‘This is mine.’

    Chandrakirti Supplement to the Middle Way – Madhyamakavatara

    Some versus from Three Principle Aspects of the Path by Lama Tsong Khapa

    2. Listen with a pure mind, fortunate ones who have no craving for the pleasures of life, and who to make leisure and fortune meaningful strive to turn their minds to the path which pleases the Victors.

    3. There is no way to end, without pure renunciation, this striving for pleasant results in the ocean of life. It is because of their hankering life as well that beings are fettered, so seek renunciation first.

    4. Leisure and fortunate are hard to find; life is not long; think it constantly; stop desire for this life. Think over and over how deeds and their fruits never fail, and of the cycle’s suffering; stop desire for the future.

    5. When you have meditated thus, and feel not even a moment’s desire for the good things of cyclic life, and when you begin to think both night and day of achieving freedom, you have found renunciation.

    6. Renunciation, though, can never bring the total bliss of matchless Buddhahood, unless it is bound by the highest with; and so, the wise seek the high wish for enlightenment.

    7. They are swept along on four fierce river currents; chained up tight in past deeds, hard to undo; stuffed in a steel cage of grasping “self�; smothered in the pitch-black ignorance.

    8. In a limitless round, they are born, and in their births, are tortured by the three sufferings without a break. Think how your mothers feel. Think of what is happening to them. Try to develop this highest wish.

    9. You may master renunciation and the wish, but unless you have the wisdom perceiving reality, you cannot cut the root of cyclic life. Strive in many ways, then, to perceive interdependence.

    10. A person is entered the path that pleases the Buddhas when, for all objects, in the cycle or beyond, he sees that cause and effect can never fail, and when, for her, they lose all solid appearance.

  2. Numenware, a blog about neurotheology » Blog Archive » Thanks for your comments Says:

    […] longest comment, by far, was on my post Book review: Living with the Devil The Terrorist Next Door video , where Nordron, a Buddhist monk from Dharmasala, gave a thoughtful, […]

Leave a Reply