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Chapter 13. Reading After Buddhism in Bangkok
Cf. Reading Lolita in Teheran by Azar Nafisi
I was delighted to learn last year that After Buddhism was going to be published in Thailand, a traditional Buddhist country.
I will call the publisher “Publisher A”
Jan. 12 from the editor of Publisher A. “To my greatest disappointment, I received an email from our external editor who agreed to work on the translation of “After Buddhism” by Stephen Batchelor. According to what is written below, I am afraid we might have to cancel our plan.I am very very sorry for the inconvenience, but if our expert said so, I would be reluctant to go on publishing this book in question.”
My Reply to Publisher A. “… The external editor and the learned monks she consulted appear to be more concerned about my unorthodox interpretations of the Pali texts than my choice of terminology. It is not the choice of terms, by the way, that leads to the unorthodox interpretation, but the unorthodox interpretation that informs my choice of terms — just as commitment to Theravada orthodoxy will likewise inform how you choose to translate a particular Pali term. The aim of After Buddhism (which the editor admits she has not read) is to present a step-by-step case for this unorthodox, secular interpretation of the dharma.”
What this highlights is the distinction between a Biblical Scholar and a Theologian. A Biblical Scholar seeks to understand what the original texts mean in the light of linguistic analysis, historical context etc. A Theologian seeks to understand what the original texts mean for us in leading our lives in the world today.
Fundamentalists are those who insist that there is only one correct interpretation of the text that it can never change. Anyone who departs from this reading is therefore wrong and a heretic.
I think of myself as a liberal theologian, inspired by Christian and Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.
Behind the religious claims to truth (right versus wrong) lie issues of who has authority and power within the tradition.
For the first time, I find myself confronted with charges of blasphemy and heresy.
At the same time, this criticism kickstarted many of my own insecurities around my work. I have an anxiety that one day someone will discover a crucial error in my work that causes the whole edifice to collapse. My “imposter syndrome” is particular sensitive to the reactions of “real” Buddhists such as those in Thailand.
I even checked the passages from the Pali texts in the opening pages of After Buddhism, but could find nothing that was significantly different from most other translations.
On 31 January I received a letter from Netiwit, a student activist from Thailand, who had been working as the translator for Publisher A of After Buddhism.
“I might not be very expert on Buddhism,” he wrote, “but I like ideas and I think we should not only listen to monks and academics with titles to be the voices to interpret Buddhism; our way of life should not be determined by some authority to dictate it for everyone. Your book gives me inspiration and, I think, many Thais, to dare to understand Buddhism by themselves by your example and courage.”
Netiwit offers to continue translating the book and to publish it through his student press in Bangkok.
What initially seemed like a failure has now turned into something far more promising. I am happy to be involved with Netiwit and his friends, where my work will potentially reach many younger Thai people.
These are exactly the sort of readers whom I hope will find inspiration in my books.
My experience with Thai Buddhists took me out of my Buddhist bubble in the west and opened my eyes to the reality of Buddhism experienced by traditional Buddhists in Asia. The dispute over After Buddhism highlights the tensions in Buddhist societies undergoing enormous social, political and religious change in their countries as a result of globalisation. Thailand and Burma are two hotspots of this conflict, where conservative and radical factions are engaged in an ongoing confrontation.
To get a clearer global picture of Buddhism, it is helpful to look at the global status of Buddhists compared to other religions — this information was sent to me by Rob Hogendoorn:
Buddhists made up roughly 7% of the world’s population in 2015, but they are expected to decrease to roughly 5% by 2060. This is because Buddhists have relatively low fertility rates compared with other religious groups, and they are not expected to grow significantly due to conversions or religious switching.
Half of the world’s Buddhists live in China, where they are 18% of the population.
They make up about 1% of Americans, two thirds of whom are Asian Buddhists.
With a median age of 36, Buddhists are older than the world’s overall population, which has a median age of 30, according to estimates as of 2015. They also are older than people in other major religious groups, such as Muslims (median of 24), Hindus (median of 27) and Christians (median of 30). Religiously unaffiliated adults have the same median age as Buddhists (36). Only Jews have an older median age — 37.
The same researchers also predict that by 2050 “Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”
Christianity and Islam are both expected to continue growing in numbers and to reach parity by 2060.
These figures put into perspective a start-up movement like Secular Buddhism, which, according to these figures, does not seem to have a hopeful future either as a part of Buddhism or secularity.
May 2021: The Art of Solitude is published in Thailand — by Publisher A.
Publisher A. has no problem with a Buddhist writer who talks of his experiments with psychedelics and describes how he “vomited out” his attachment to Buddhism while under the influence of ayahuasca, but are unwilling to publish After Buddhism
NB. Publisher A. Will also publish Carmel Shalev. In Praise of Ageing: Awakening to Old Age with Wisdom and Compassion. London: Watkins, 2020.