Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor: Book Review
This is a slightly unusual book. Part confessional, part travel log, but largely a riveting and entertaining analysis of what the Buddha actually said.
Batchelor’s main point is that much of what is taken as core Buddhist dogma is in fact subsequent additions, and often runs counter to what the Buddha said. Some of this is cultural overlay, but much, and his analysis supports this, is a simplification and distortion of original Buddhist thought to make it more palatable. Batchelor has gone back to the early Pali texts and tried to sift out what was original, or specific to Buddhism as opposed to part of the existing culture of the time. Some of his contentions are that much Buddhist thought invokes a God concept, or the idea of some “ultimate” reality. This he argues is counter to the original message of Buddhism. He also dismisses notions such as reincarnation as anti-Buddhist, although he is much too polite to be so blunt about it. Batchelor’s analysis of the core of Buddhism paints it as a very existentialist practice. While his conclusions are probably not that startling for most Zen students, they do have some interesting implications for many “Buddhists,” and their practice. As a psychologist I also found striking parallels to one of the modern “mindfulness” based therapies ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).
An analysis of Pali texts can sound boring, but these sections of the book are in no way dull. Batchelor seems to have a knack for making an etymological analysis of Pali (a long dead language) interesting and closely linked to lively descriptions not only of Buddha’s life, his thought, and the culture he lived in, but to Batchelor’s coming to terms with his own life, and his commitment to Buddhist practice. He starts the book with a bravely open description of himself as a young man studying Buddhism, first in Dharamsala, and then in Switzerland. He describes his immersion in Tibetan Buddhism, his efforts to believe, and ultimately his inability to remain true to himself while embracing many of the concepts and assumptions of his teachers. Much of the first part of the book is a fascinating insight into the development of his thought and his understanding of Buddhist practice. One aspect of the book I found very moving was the sense of admiration and respect Mr Batchelor had, and obviously still has, for his teachers even as he felt the need to distance himself from them and their approach. While certainly not dwelt upon, or depicted in any melodramatic fashion the sense of a very real struggle in moving towards his own understanding was well conveyed.
I won’t give the game away by describing his conclusions in detail, Stephen Batchelor does that much better than I can anyway. But, you can get a taste of the book through some of his recorded talks. (Ed. Note: there are several of his talks on youtube)
Some Thoughts: Thinking about this book, the whole development of Buddhist practices in the West, and particularly the role of popular professional Buddhist teachers, it struck me that those who brought Buddhism to the West were generally quite a strange lot.
I am roughly the same age as Stephen Batchelor. I knew people who went to India and Tibet, and who seriously took up eastern religions. They were by and large a weird bunch. Very intense, sometimes driven, and more than a bit dogmatic. I was, as I believe most of their contemporaries were, impressed by their knowledge and commitment. I was also a wee bit envious of them while still thinking that they were more than slightly gullible.
My feeling was that at some level they had been taken in, or conned. In a way this is what Mr Batchelor is expressing in his “confessions.” The sense of being taken in. Not on purpose. Not maliciously. All the same, this book certainly represents the struggle to free himself from just another set, or form of dogma, although of an exotic variety. I think it might be important to consider this. Think about those individuals who brought so much of our knowledge of Buddhism, and of various meditation practices back with them. Particularly those who were immersed in monastic traditions and then basically became professional Buddhists on their return to the West. They were not, and certainly are not the founts of all knowledge. Those of us interested in various forms of meditation practices owe them a great deal. The psychological community, the mindfulness based therapies owe them a great deal.
We need to remember that their focus was fairly narrow. Their knowledge came from very specific traditions. Very culture bound traditions. How have the personalities, predilections, and limited knowledge of this very unusual group of people come to determine our understanding of Buddhism, and its practices?
Where do we follow them and where do we stand on our own? In a way this is the underlying theme of the Confession. It documents a 37 year struggle to come to grips with Buddhism and to develop a personal practice that is legitimate. To stand alone.
Maybe this is exactly what all this Buddhism stuff is about. Maybe it is about growing up.
Author: James Hegarty