Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor.  Riverhead Books 1998, 127 pages.

This is my second reading of this book.  I can’t remember exactly when I read it the first time; the early ohs, probably.  But given some of the comments I’d made in the margins, I expected to disagree–perhaps violently–with a lot of it.  I was pleasantly surprised.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I read was to try to figure out if the book was appropriate for beginners to Buddhism, or strictly for more experienced sorts.  Honestly, I’m still not sure about that, because exactly how to classify Batchelor’s little tome even seems problematic.  To be frank, I’m not sure you can say it is about Buddhism.  It talks a lot about the Buddha and his teachings, no doubt, but the impression I get is that it is more of a meditation on the implications of dharma and dharma-practice for modern men and women than something about Buddhism as Buddhism.  For example, you get very little of the traditional points of doctrine, or even meditation practice, though a few exercises are discussed.  These are all in the background, though, like pieces of furniture, and the reader is expected to find his or her own familiar seat among them and listen while Batchelor discusses whatever’s on his mind.  So, on this account I think it must be for advanced dharma folks…

But perhaps not.  Many people, those “with little dust in their eyes,” will be startled and stimulated by Batchelor’s eloquent, often insightful ponderings.  He points out that the Buddha’s way of awakening did not begin as a religion–is not really a religion at all–but started out as an expression of one amazing man’s experience of freedom, of his putting an end to suffering–or, as Batchelor rather oddly terms it, “anguish.”  (I must confess, this translation of the word dukkha jarred me from beginning to end.  It’s rather too extreme and not general enough.)  Batchelor goes on to say–and here is where the controversy starts–that the proper attitude, the one in keeping with the Buddha’s own, is agnosticism, a critical, even desperate sense of not knowing, of being open to insight.

At times he explicates this position brilliantly.  Consider this passage, for me one of the highlights of the book:

Such unknowing is not the end of the track: the point beyond which thinking can proceed no further.  This unknowing is the basis of deep agnosticism.  When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.  We are free to begin a radically other kind of questioning.

This questioning is present within unknowing itself.  As soon as awareness finds itself baffled and puzzled by rainfall, a chair, the breath, they present themselves as questions.  Habitual assumptions and descriptions suddenly fail and we hear our stammering voices cry out: “What is this?”  Or simply: “What?” or “Why?”  Or perhaps no words at all, just “?”

The sheer presence of things is startling.  They provoke awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock.  Not just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.  This can be unsettling…

The task of dharma practice is to sustain this perplexity within the context of calm, clear, and centered awareness… (pp. 97-8)

A few paragraphs below, Batchelor writes in paraphrase of Tsongkhapa: “Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves.”  Herein lies the heart of the book.

Immediately I was reminded of the author’s Korean Zen (Seon) roots and of the practice of the hwadu, better known by the Japanese term koan.  For me the passage hit home for in fact the first awakening experience I ever had resulted from just such a sense of deep questioning following upon a very stimulating conversation with a friend, and my life has never been the same since.

Alas, Batchelor overreaches and in places his agnosticism descends into Western materialist pontificating.  This occurs especially in the chapter entitled “Rebirth,” where he makes a number of groundless assertions.  For example, on page 34 he says “The Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth.”  The texts, however, make it clear that rebirth was a matter of experiential fact for the Buddha as well as many of his disciples.  (My own experience inclines me, rather strongly, to side with the textual accounts.  I intend to write considerably more on this at a later date.)  Batchelor goes on to say “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.”  But in fact the Buddha redifined the understanding of this process, from one involving a reincarnating soul (atman) to one of impersonal consciousness taking form dependent upon conditions.  Cf. the Mahatnhasankhaya Sutta (M.38) which begins “Now on that occasion a pernicious view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Sati… thus: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.'”  That “pernicious view” is none other than the ever popular reincarnation theory of Hinduism and Western New Age claptrap.  Batchelor then claims “The Buddha found the prevailing Indian view of rebirth sufficient as a basis for his ethical and liberating teaching” (p. 35).  But this is in direct contradiction to the quote from the Buddha on the opposite page: “But if there is no other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done or ill done, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility, affliction, and anxieity, and I shall live happily…”  Quite plainly, the Buddha’s ethics did not derive from a “belief” in reincarnation of any sort.  Rather, it was something that possessed independent merits and purpose.  Batchelor’s incoherence on this point undermines his otherwise excellent thesis that the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching is not dogmatic or ideological, but practical, empirical and investigative.

It is quite fine though if someone, Batchelor or even you, dear reader, wish to remain agnostic on the question of rebirth.  That is not an unreasonable position.  But where Batchelor’s materialist agenda really rears its ugly head is on page 37, where he claims karma (kamma in Pali) is some kind of “ancient Indian metaphysical theory.”  Batchelor says “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  But as he himself notes, the word karma literally means “action” and in the Buddha’s psychology specifically conscious action or, to put it redundantly, “intentional intention.”  The notion that intentions and conscious actions have repercussions, that they condition the psyche and predispose it to certain influences and outcomes, is hardly a “metaphysical theory” but rather a fact seen in direct reflexive observation.  A good course of vipassana meditation will make this apparent to any who harbor lingering doubts, for there the impersonal flow of cause and effect in the states and contents of consciousness become palpably, indeed painfully, clear.

Batchelor–good materialist that he is–adopts the notion that consciousness is entirely explicable in terms of brain function–itself an article of faith as yet unverified by any experiment or data.  While no one will argue against the notion that changing brain structure or chemistry can alter conscious experience, it is also a fact that by thinking consistently in a certain way, or by determining to do something repetitively–both of which are acts of conscioussness–I can alter my brain structure and chemistry, thereby clearly demonstrating that consciousness and the brain are interdependent; it is not a one way street where the one strictly determines the other.  Batchelor, however, is too ideological too consider this point.

I have not yet read this book’s successor volume, Confessions of A Buddhist Atheist, which even Christopher Hitchens found palatable.  From what I’ve read though, Batchelor there really presses his brand of agnosticism to the limits, perhaps to the point of utter failure.  I’ll leave my considerations on that one for a future review, if I ever get around to it.  For now I would simply like to say that despite the above noted flaws, Buddhism Without Beliefs is a beautifully written, deeply thought and felt little book worthy of the attention it has received.  Batchelor is a wise voice and an excellent writer to boot and though his book deserves criticism it also deserves praise.  My final conclusion is that while beginners in Buddhism can benefit from the book, it will probably mean much more to those who have sufficient reading and practice under their belts.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars



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