Suspending Belief: How the Buddha taught me to let go of Buddhism

Suspending Belief

On the surface, Buddhism is a nice religion that promotes compassion for all living beings — even cockroaches and Wall Street traders. Under the hood, however, it’s a seditious philosophy that undermines the very foundations of reason. It suggests that everything you experience is illusory — including Buddhism itself.

The upshot of this is that, although I became a Buddhist to transform my mind, that transformation didn’t begin to happen until I let go of my Buddhist beliefs.

I was about six years into my monkhood when I seriously asked myself why I believed — in reincarnation, in perfect happiness (Enlightenment) and in that whole tapestry of enchanting ideas. The answer was banal, but also a shock to my integrity: I believed because those beliefs brought me comfort:

  • they provided a convenient framework to explain life and its purpose;
  • they connected me to people who agreed with me, with whom I happily agreed in exchange;
  • they enrolled me in a venerable, centuries-old institution that was beyond question.

The comfort was one of security and certainty. I was on a well-trodden path. I was saved.

‘Saved,’ of course, isn’t a Buddhist concept; it’s Christian — as I once was myself. I began to suspect that something of that remained. I may have rejected the rationalizations of my birth-religion, but its emotional triggers were part and parcel of my neural pathways. Changing my ideas hadn’t changed my habitual reactions.

Do you honestly believe you’ll come back as a bug?

I’d thought that Buddhism was different. It turned out that it was up to me to be different. And yet, the Buddha’s teachings helped me let go of Buddhism. He’d bypassed the question of whether life had any ultimate meaning, and suggested only that we find our way between the two fatal extremes of eternalism and nihilism (which plays out in the West today as fundamentalist theism versus radical atheism).

As a lowly monk, I had the freedom to ponder this dilemma in my own time. When I began teaching however, things got complicated. Even today, people listen eagerly to Tibetans talking about life after death, invisible demons and enlightened beings who know the past, present and future. Not being Asian, I faced questions that were too rude to put to a venerable old lama; questions such as, “Do you honestly believe you’ll come back as a bug?”

Honestly? My original question about why I believed now morphed into the dilemma of what to do with these beliefs held for such flimsy reasons. Relinquishing them meant giving up my role as a monk and the privileged lifestyle that went with it. It meant returning to the world and its harsh realities. It meant losing my support system. Still, if wanted to look myself in the eye each morning, it had to be done.

The one thing I held on to was the Buddha as role-model. Just as he gave up his worldly comforts, I gave up my spiritual ones. Like him, I preferred to live with no truth rather than with ersatz truths.

With time and experience, I was eventually ready to teach again — though not under the banner of Buddhism. Years had passed, and for me the Buddha and Buddhism were two very different things. Since real spiritual movement had begun for me with my own striving for honesty, I took that as my foundation. I coined the phrase, “Expose yourself to doubt.” I called myself “The Naked Monk.”

Mindful Reflection: The honesty to expose and uproot denial

It’s well known that the Buddha taught mindfulness; today it’s all the rage. It’s less well known that he taught it in the context of thoughtfulness. Too many people conceive of meditation as the stopping of thoughts and emptying of the mind. Mindfulness bears long-term fruit in the context of how we live and think when we’re off the cushion. I use to word ‘reflection’ to describe the rearrangement of thought into perspectives than enable letting-go — especially of untenable beliefs and views. The Buddha promoted economy of thought and, above all, the integrity to expose and uproot denial. I call his method Mindful Reflection.

I neither believe nor disbelieve in reincarnation and enlightenment. I really can’t say whether there’s any such thing as complete freedom from stress in this life. Opinions like this consume lots of energy, but don’t really lead anywhere. The point is: Here we are, what now? Life is stressful; what can we do about it?

Instinctively, we handle it with denial. That leads us to repeat our personal stories again and again (samsara). Mindfulness brings the momentum of our mental patterns (karma) into focus. Reflecting on life with intelligence and compassion leads us to change those patterns.

Intelligence and compassion are the two wings of practice. They help us deal with the uncertainty, pain and tragedy of life. They are what the Buddha taught, but are often buried in the myriad tenets and beliefs of the Buddhist religion that began the day he died. His last words weren’t about maintaining the organization or the teachings he’d established. They were simply encouragement for those he left behind:

“Struggle earnestly for your own freedom.”

‘Earnestly’ means honestly. So, what, and why, do you believe — honestly?

Here, Stephen Schettini shares his understanding and practice of what the Buddha taught. Stephen is the author of The Novice, a memoir of his experiences as a Buddhist monk, and It Begins with Silence: The Art of Mindful Reflection. He also leads Quiet Mind Workshops, teaching the principles of Mindful Reflection™. In addition to his blog, you can also connect with Stephen on Twitter @TheNakedMonk and on Facebook.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

27 thoughts on “Suspending Belief: How the Buddha taught me to let go of Buddhism”

  1. Thank-you Stephen, beautifully written and poignant.
    I believe in love, compassion and try to “always do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

    Life is precious and if after we die it should all go black, my life would have been worth every single fabulous moment.

    1. @Craig: You must have heard of the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris et al. They’re not your everyday unbelievers. They see the religious impulse as entirely abominable and suggest that science is all we need. They’re also fervent proselytizers. For want of a better term, I call their creed “radical atheism.” They’re shoving logic down our throats as if nothing else is real.

      1. Sam Harris is a strong supporter and long-time practitioner of Mindfulness Meditation and I think he’s currently writing a book based around the subject of that terribly vague word, ‘spirituality’. He seems to abhor the view that ‘science is all we need’ because he has experienced what meditation has to offer. In this he differs with the other ‘new atheists’.

        Stephen, somehow I’ve only just yesterday discovered your site after 4 increasingly gratifying years of immersing myself in Buddhist thought and practise. I want to thank you immensely because you have distilled the essence of these teachings in such practical and vivid ways that I find inspirational. I’ve purchased ‘It Begins with Silence’ from amazon and await it eagerly. Your writing has really touched this Buddhist/Atheist from Queensland, Australia. Thanks!

        1. Thanks Dan. I look forward to Harris’s next contribution. I must confess I was finding the new atheism rather tedious, and that long-suffering word ‘spirituality’ could certainly use a little fresh air.

  2. Honestly and directly, I believe that all of our actions and speech bring us to where we are. Why? Because here we are, where ever that is now. It is how we perceive and respond to reality that affects what happens next. And if my motivation is to do no harm, but to be of benefit to others, then at the very least, even if I am completely wrong that how one conducts their life and how one treats others matters in the grand scheme, I will die with my mind at rest, in peace and open. This is a life of no regrets. This is a good life.

  3. What we need to learn more is resilience and courage: the courage to look truthfully at ourselves and the resilience to follow the path all the way to the end. The courage to question again and again, and the resilience to backtrack and readjust our trajectory.

  4. I really like your entry, but on this particular point, I take issue. I feel it is somewhat disingenuous to liken the New Atheists to fundamentalist theists. It misrepresents what they are doing to say they are “shoving logic down our throats as if nothing else is real.” They are concerned with making claims about the observable universe and argue that where religion makes such claims, those claims collapse under their own weight. This is simply a disciplined application of the scientific process, cutting religion no slack. This says nothing about what people feel adds meaning to their lives or how they construct their notions of morality.

    After all, you are asking if you honestly believe that you’ll come back as a bug. We have no reason to think that you will. The burden is on the person who claims reincarnation is real to demonstrate that it is. You say “Opinions like this consume lots of energy, but don’t really lead anywhere.” Does this mean you question the merit of the entire scientific enterprise? Should we not be examining the origins of the universe or trying to find the Higgs Boson?

    1. @Craig: The New Atheists and fundamentalist theists are at opposite extremes: one is in denial of scientific fact; the other is in denial of science’s limitations. The successes of technology and the dazzling density of proven facts blinds the New Atheists and their strident supporters to the reality that science can only describe, not understand.

      When the New Atheists equate the religious impulse with unscientific belief, they toss out the baby with the bathwater. Religion is rife with superstition, but something at the core of religion attempts to represent the core of the human experience. The New Atheists set up a straw dog of a God , then knock it down and demonize these who look beyond knowledge. In that, they’re unscientific, sometimes downright demagogic. This doesn’t devalue their scientific enterprise, but here they’re overstepping the bounds of their expertize.

      As for examining the origins of the universe or trying to find the Higgs Boson, these are fascinating tasks — engrossing ways to pass our time on Earth. But, do they have any inherent value? Would it matter if we didn’t pursue knowledge endlessly? Will we ever get bored turning up new answers only to posit new questions?

      Craig, do you believe life has some fundamental purpose?

  5. “Don’t do as I say, but find out for yourself.” Like you I struggled with the path. Maybe Caroline helped you out with uncertainty, pain and tragedy in life. Is that not what MS and chronic pain is all about? Sometimes we find our wings in the most unlikely places!!! — like the Heron that landed in your own back yard. It pays to step back a little and let nature have her own way. Don’t cut your grass because your neighbor does. Be a free thinker.

    The Warrior

    1. @Peter: Caroline has helped me out for sure — she’s my helpmate after all — but she’s also a role-model of how to live in an imperfect world. We all have to accept our imperfect bodies, but living as she does with MS, she’s learned to accept a particularly imperfect one and not just survive, but flourish. She inspires me every day.

  6. I am only familiar with Dawkins, so I can’t speak for any of the others (nor can I presume to “speak for” Dawkins). Dawkins has no problem with people trying to find meaning in their lives. It’s making unsubstantiated claims about the nature of the world, such as reincarnation, that he finds offensive. He has absolutely no problem with people trying to unearth the core of the human experience, take his conversations with Peter Singer on ethics ( But his message would be to do so without making things up, that’s hardly fundamentalist.

    Of course science has no inherent value. Science has intrinsic and justifying goals. The intrinsic goal in science is to discover the truth of the question that is being investigated (does the Higgs Boson exist or not). The justifying goal is what we believe to be the goal or purpose that justifies finding that truth. In the case of the Higgs Boson, the search is justified by our desire to understand the Standard Model in physics. The intrinsic goal (the existence or not of the boson) is entirely independent of the justifying goal. So, no, it would not matter if we discovered the boson or not apart from satisfying our desire to unify the Standard Model (and apart from any incidental benefits to humanity through the technological innovation). Science has just the meaning that we assign to it.

    Whether or not I feel life has a fundamental purpose is shifting the burden; Dawkins is in the business of deconstructing arguments for a fundamental purpose in life that are based on unsubstantiated claims (faulty assumptions). He is not (to my knowledge) creating arguments for why life has a purpose. The default position is uncertainty (there may be a purpose, but we don’t have a reason to think so just yet). He does argue that we have more reason than not to disbelieve in god, but that is different than talking about meaning in life. Here is an argument for purpose in life that I like: (a review here: Dworkin argues that there is value in a life lived well.

    1. @Craig: Thank you for that great conversation with Peter Singer, but I’m not questioning Dawkins’ morality or his advocacy of an ethical life. I admire his science and his teaching of it. My issue is his presumption that all those who speak of God have the same thing in mind. For example, in this interview, when asked, “why do we insist on believing in God,” he begins by speaking of, “this extraordinary predisposition to believe in supernatural things.” In other words, he paints any mention of God as superstitious. He does this even more blatantly in his book title: The God Delusion. Does this suggest that when Einstein or Gödel mentioned God, as they did frequently, they were like those mindless bible-thumpers who think of God as a white-bearded old man in the clouds?

      I don’t believe in any such God. However, I was raised by devout Catholics who’s most caring expression was, “God bless you.” Although I’ve passed right through Buddhism and now endeavor to hold the minimum possible views, those words still resonate for me emotionally, and I sometimes find the expression on the tip of my tongue. I can conceive of cause and effect as an underlying creative force to the universe without being superstitious. I accept that others might call that God. I have no need to attribute intention and personality to it. I encounter people who, like Einstein and Gödel, speak of God in meaningful ways. Dawkins is no fool and presumably understands the difference between a superstition and a manner of speaking, but it’s not evident in the way he speaks.

      BTW, I truly appreciate this dialogue. A couple of books you might find interesting, if you haven’t already read them: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse and Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution.

  7. It certainly might be the case that Dawkins, when he wears his anti-religion crusader hat, is insensitive to subtle differences in language and understanding. Religion is, after all, a pretty big and encompassing tent. And his attack is specific and narrow: unjustifiable claims. Of course he goes on to argue that these claims are ultimately harmful, in that they cause us to create arbitrary distinctions and ignore the evidence before us.

    I think you are a bit unfair, however, to say on the one hand, Dawkins is limited in his definition of God, but on the other, to say that his attack on religion is an attack on everything that could be considered religious.

    When Dawkins is talking to Peter Singer or discussing Einstein, Dawkins’ tone and choice of words is completely different than when he is in an auditorium defending his rebuke of untenable religious claims about the natural world. In the former, he is discussing the niceties of the limits of our knowledge and of our wonder at the natural world. In the latter, he is arguing that made-up beliefs are harmful to society. It is a stretch for me to accept that Dawkins, in either situation, embodies nihilism or is the flipside of the fundamentalist coin.

    Nothing you have said here is inconsistent with Dawkins, I venture he would probably enjoy talking with you about your experiences in Buddhism. Maybe you could even teach him something about upaya and public relations. Perhaps he won’t come across as so abrasive then.

  8. It is also entirely possible that I am watering down New Atheism and am simply talking about my own views as if they were Dawkins’.

  9. No, I don’t think so. And perhaps I’m not giving Dawkins full credit for his thoughtfulness. However, referring to God as a delusion is not only insulting to millions of ordinary, non-fundamental, decent people, it’s also treading away from science and into the very subjective field of human motivation. He deserves merit for his expertise, but as a highly influential figure, he should be held to account when he speaks outside of his chosen field, simply because people listen — most of them not very critically.

    However, if I likened him to a nihilist, you’re right — I’m not being fair.

  10. Your essay resonates with me and reminds me of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism with Beliefs (& all 3 of us are named Stephen?! whatever that means, or not!). I am fortunate to be going to Spirit Rock next week to spend a week on retreat with SB and his wife Martine. It is always cool to spend some time with those whose work has inspired.I look forward to perhaps attending one of your courses/retreats in the future – you are just about next door! (I live in Montreal).

  11. Plenty of interesting routes for further discussion arise from this post and it’s commentaries! Thanks for it. I’ll try to connect a few main ideas and hope the result will not be too sketchy.

    Suspending Belief, even noticing our belief structures, constitute already inner spiritual work, and already begs for techniques (like Mindful Reflection) to navigate the pitfalls. As the article makes clear, Buddha is not the same thing as Buddhism, just as the voice in the Gospels is not particularly close to what passes nowadays for Christianity, in all it’s myriad derived dogma systems. Maybe many Westerners do not see the split in Buddhism between the radical insights of the originator and the bodies of sectarian pronouncements which have developed, but I think that would be because their idealism lets them hope it is not so after having been disappointed by the state of things in Christian religions closer to cultural home.

    Can anyone who has really devoted some time to inner work really imagine that the Buddha himself warned: ‘Do Not Do X lest you return as a bug’? Or that Jesus mentioned that Republicans will make for better leaders in the 21st century and will more likely enter the Kingdom of Heaven? No — all such formulations are derived, by people who are a good deal less awake than the originals.

    Some fundamentalist Christians hold that they have successfully gone back to the source and bypassed the pollutants of organized religious doctrine, but nothing seems further from the truth to me. They are all deeply entangled within emotional needs to tribalize together under the umbrella of some vocal interpreter’s (could we even say ‘marketer’?) pastoring and organizational skills. What shows the lie clearly in these contexts is exactly how looked down upon any truly independent thinking is seen to be. Go wtih the group or correct your sins. But what are radical spiritual innovators in human history if not figures who appeal to our individual intuition? (As an aside, this is why critics and believers alike who try to approach documents like the Gospels on a factual rhetorical level are wrong before even beginning. These are intuitive documents, and must be entertained in one’s imagination and mulled over in connection with years of biographical experiences before they can create something within us.)

    I am also glad that the equivalent situation was pointed out for the fundamentalist Athiests, because many rational types consider themselves to be in sturdier boats on the correct river as compared to the less fortunate religious seekers. Dawkins provides a great example of this. It has long fascinated me how large a proportion of vocal athiests are reformed devouts (I do not mean merely casual members of one or another religion here — I mean ‘devout’, having passionate belief), Christians of one sect or another. This is the case with Dawkins, and what I see in his writings, even in his popular science writings, is a personality which is only comfortable with a well-ordered system of theories to explain all of the cosmos, which system is to be rigorously defended from question or perceived attack. He merely substituted a radical materialism (which is assumed as an axiom and therefore immune to criticism or real inspection) for Episcopalianism. When I attended a few meetings of the local Montreal meetup group devoted to Athiesm and ‘Free-Thinkers’ this spring I noticed the exact same psychological bent amongst the leaders, shakers, and most vocal there. When I voiced an opinion or two that were more moderate than the norm, which begged the question that certain foregone ‘conclusions’ perhaps deserved to remain open to inquiry due to X, Y, and Z, one could sense the immediate chill and even insecurity in the room. And this meeting came complete with retellings of how so-and-so was brought up according to this or that brainwashing but now has seen the light. Tribalism: 1, Independent Intuitive Thinking: 0.

    It’s ok actually. I have no objection to self-help groups which orient people who are tossing aside older belief systems, but how about reigning in the theatrical certainty, the unaware self-assuredness, and waiting on confiscating the label ‘Freethinkers’ until you are actually exhibiting some?

    So, coming back to the post’s closing question: ‘what and why do you believe’? If you want to use this spiritual seed as something to cultivate, then do not answer the question. Especially not online. This is an inner question, meant to allow us to experience our self more deeply. To answer it is to kill it (If you meet the Buddha on the road…), but instead of killing it, why not ask it anew every day, as a practice, and see what unfolds? Nobody is going to hand out gold stars for the correct reply.

    Notice this same quality in Gospel parables, or Zen koans, and I suppose Buddha sayings, what ones survived. When we keep the idea open, unanswered, it continues yielding fruit, light, endlessly, and becomes our friend for constant reflection. When we close it, kill it, (Is that your final answer?) we remove it from further consideration, learn nothing, and forget it. To see things this way is already a big improvement over the analytical ‘crucifixion’ or nailing-down, of the thought.

  12. If instead of thinking Buddha and Buddhism (obviously post-Bhudda), I have disengaged simply by equating the Buddha with an older conception of the 19th century PRAMATIC movement. Was he not one of the first great thinkers/philosopher to state his approach as a tool for THIS existence?
    The Buddha is a practical concept, Buddhism is a movement generated by a collective as a mean to an end as most movements, sadly…. CONTROL.

  13. I suspect that the answers to the question would be pretty varied and don’t doubt that there are a good number of venerables who would not in the least be shocked by the question, even as beliefs among Christians are pretty varied–there are many hard core fundamentalists on all sides and there are those Christians (e.g., John Shelby Spong) who are throwing theocracy overboard and still consider themselves Christian. While I doubt that I will return as a bug (for all my faults) I also doubt that I would burn eternally in hell, much preferring the Buddhist view that you move out of hell once your bad Karma is exhausted. I find that grappling with the traditions we are giving is thoroughly fascinating. I have just picked up the Dalai Lama’s recent Toward a True Kinship and will be intrigued by his insights.

    1. I had the liberating experience of standing beside a Vietnamese monk this year, (in June 2011) at the Maha-Teachers Council. We’d been asked to “cross the line” if we were Buddhists, but while everyone else did, we didn’t. Instead of crossing we stood firm in the knowledge that what we were said more than the labels we identified with. Yes, there are good, clear Buddhists, just like there are good clear Christians and Jews, Hindus and Moslems, but all are rare. It’s not about which “ism” you subscribe to, it’s about how you carry it.

  14. Thanks for this great article!

    The movement away from traditional buddhism for me was natural. I was a hard core atheist, but was intrigued by the Buddha’s thorough study of the mind. My stint with Tibetan Buddhism was confusing. While the buddhist bits made sense, all the praying, blessings, and talk of heaven and hell realms did not.

    I am happy to cherry pick from Buddhism, taking the nuggets of wisdom, incorporating them into my life as best I can, and leaving the belief system completely. No being reborn as a bug makes no sense to my scientific way of thinking.

    Your blogs are great, and thank you so much for blogging on the site as well. We really appreciate getting your view now and then.

    1. I just read this by Stephen Batchelor. As usual, he summarizes and validates what so many of us are feeling:

      “Some time ago I realized that what I found most difficult to accept in Buddhism were those beliefs that it shared with its sister Indian religions Hinduism and Jainism. Yet when you bracket off those beliefs, you are left not with a fragmentary and emasculated teaching, but with an entirely adequate ethical, philosophical and practical framework for living your life in this world. Thus what is truly original in the Buddha’s teaching, I discovered, was his secular outlook.”

  15. That’s a really interesting perspective and a thought-provoking piece. I would have labelled myself as a Christian when I was younger, but quite early on came to the conclusion it was down to fear and looking for meaning, belonging and comfort. My wife was an atheist and an incredible human being, loving, caring, thoughtful and in many ways spiritual in her love of life, nature and others. When she died her thoughts were all about those she was leaving behind, preparing us, making sure we loved and cared for each other and our daughter. I have met very few other human beings who shined as she did. When you look at organised religions they come from simple beginnings that inspired people, the thoughts and words of people who could see more to life, but then they were turned into huge, formal organisations, and ultimately big businesses and power bases. To bring these back to their beginnings, to consider the purest forms free from the trappings and add ons of years of institutional manipulation, is very refreshing.

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