My friend Stephen Batchelor’s latest book was released just two weeks ago, and it’s already in its second printing. I tip my hat to him. He’s best known for Buddhism without Beliefs (1997), which once and for all branded him a renegade. In it, he called into question the two ‘key’ Buddhist teachings of karma and reincarnation, suggesting they weren’t key at all but cultural artifacts of the Buddha’s time and place.
It’s well worth taking the trouble to question beliefs — particularly Buddhist ones. I’ve always counted them as secondary to the practices anyway, but if Stephen’s ideas have pried open the eyes of one staunch believer, he’s done well. Buddhism’s often described as a belief system or a philosophy, but I think of it as a mode of inquiry; this blog is subtitled (above) to reflect that interpretation. I’m convinced that the Buddha was a hard-core empiricist, sanctified after his death mostly by men who never met him.
Anyway, Stephen’s done it again. In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist he’s making committed Buddhists question the way they believe in Buddhism. We spent several years together back when we were monks in Switzerland, and exchanged lots of correspondence when we went our own ways; I suspect his book will chronicle similar disappointments to those I described in The Novice. Only today, I don’t count them as disappointment any more, but realizations. That’s a catchy word in Buddhism — especially for those who, naïve as I once was, think of realization as a mystical encounter with a blissfully hidden reality. Now, I’d describe it more as waking up to the facts of life, usually with a shudder. That might sound brutal, but if that’s what it takes to break down your illusions, it’s worth it. All you’re shedding is unnecessary baggage; it settles you down a little closer to the simple fact of being, and that beats anything.
So what’s wrong with the way people believe? Well, for example, as cool and sweet as the Dalai Lama might be, choosing him as your guru doesn’t increase your chances of enlightenment one iota. And yet people crowd around him as if he might put in a good word — but with whom? Buddhists don’t believe in God. And remember, the Buddha didn’t start out with the truth of bliss, but the truth of suffering. I don’t idealise him any more, but I do think he knew what he was doing.
Which brings me back to Stephen’s book. Why Buddhist Atheist? Buddhists are already atheists, aren’t they? Well, I’ll be getting a copy shortly, and will review it right here. I’m especially looking forward to his biography of the Buddha, which is one whole part of the book. I know that Stephen’s been carefully researching his life and times for years, and I’m hoping at long last to read a critical, humanistic account of Siddhartha Gotama — the great man who first snared my attention forty years ago, and who still has it. I may not call myself a Buddhist any more, but that’s no reflection on him.