Living with the Devil by Stephen Batchelor. We are all strangers in a strange land.

Living with the DevilI was impressed with Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, so I read his more recent work, Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. The earlier work was a statement of original Buddhism, relieved of the dogmas of karma and reincarnation. Suffering stems from a belief in an unchanging self or soul, driving our perceptions, desires, and actions into anxiety. Yielding up this belief takes the sting out of suffering. This simple statement smacked of truth, and was a refreshing break from mystical mumbo-jumbo. Still, there were more questions. I found that practicing mindfulness of contingency frees up energy, both positive and negative. After all, if we yield up any larger system of beliefs, where do we direct our energy? Does Buddhism without beliefs hold up or fall apart? According to Batchelor, even Buddha tangled with it. He called it Mara, the devil, and lived with it all his life.

Mara, Satan, or any devil, says Batchelor is a metaphor for trying to hang on too tight, constricting the contingency of life. In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is depicted as frozen to his neck in ice. Fixations are opposite to the Buddha’s truth that there is no permanent self. We come by it honestly. All of evolution has prepared us for survival, for perpetuation of the self. In the end, it is false. Entropy will have its way. We will age and die. To deny it is to invite suffering. “Each time something contingent and impermanent is raised to the status of something necessary and permanent, a devil is created” (34). Batchelor recommends an attitude of homelessness. Reality is finally unfamiliar. We are all strangers in a strange land.

I guess I’m not enlightened yet. Buddhism seems tilted toward openness and against fixity. I think of things cosmic as a two-step, yin and yang in perpetual oscillation. Is fixity always evil? Think of the small stories we tell ourselves, things we fear and fancy that give small meaning to our lives, the tents we pitch to defy the night sky. To be fair, I have yet to find a Buddhist who denies that self exists in a practical sense, or that well-intended planning is vain. They might talk about compassion or care. Quoting a lama, care is “a keen engagement and letting go” (182). It is a matter of not gripping too hard, not severing out the life in things. That would be evil. Batchelor says that “Buddha and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition with human nature” (180). If so, they both represent poles on a continuum from open to closed, neither extreme preferable. So sometimes fixity is the better choice.

If fixity is evil when we clench too hard, then how hard? What about our grand narratives, the meta-stories we tell about the destiny of our lives and the world. Our small stories tend toward more complex ones. We need them to keep faith. Is the faith misplaced? Are we just compounding illusion? Are grand narratives too hard a clenching? If so, why is it that apocalypses never happen, and why do complex social and information systems keep chugging along? As I see it, we should not stop imagining grand narratives. Rather, we should refrain from insisting on only one. Buddhism without beliefs holds up if Batchelor is only rejecting rigid beliefs, not speculative ones.

I have my own speculative grand narrative. It is not particularly consistent or inconsistent with Buddhism or other religious views. At the heart of this narrative is the dualities discussed here. Contingent and essential, small and grand, self and the world. Why do these dualities exist at all? Batchelor says the illusion of self is a function of evolution and I agree with him, but toward what? These splits, I fancy, serve a larger purpose. It is only when a thing is split that it can observe itself. Self is temporarily cut off from the world, and mind captures reality for a fixed moment like a photograph. Maybe the universe is trying to catch a photo of itself. Is entropy inevitable or contingent based on what god sees in the mirror? Who knows? I’m not fixed on it.